Fine Gael’s recent ‘New Politics’ document outlines radical reforms of Ireland’s electoral system which the party would implement in the event of victory at the next general election. Enda Kenny will hope that the much-publicised policy proposals will deflect attention from his flat performances in the media of late, and the embarrassing resignation of George Lee. However, while many of the concepts contained within New Politics are eye-catching and headline-making, the wisdom behind them requires further examination. Furthermore, the issue of political reform has caused a rift within the Fine Gael front bench, once again calling Enda Kenny’s leadership credentials into question.
The abolition of the upper house of the Oireachtas, Seanad Éireann, has been the subject of public debate for some time now. Kenny believes a unicameral parliament will be ‘more responsive and more dynamic’. If anything, however, a parliament consisting solely of Dáil Éireann would be less responsive, as the checks-and-balances of the legislative process would be eroded away by a simple parliamentary rule-by-majority. Removing the Seanad would save the exchequer a mere €30m per five-year term – hardly a substantial boost to the public coffers. While the Seanad in its current form is clearly not serving the needs of Irish people, it is its reform – rather than its abolition – which would strengthen our democracy.
A far more progressive measure proposed is the election of 15 members to Dáil Éireann by a list system. These deputies, elected (presumably) in super-constituencies similar to those used for European elections, would “devote 100 per cent of their time to the legislative process.” While the Fine Gael propaganda machine speaks of reducing the number of TDs by 20, in real terms there would be a net loss of five TDs, due to these list-elected members. In theory, these reforms could liven up debates in Leinster House, which in their current guise are poorly attended and consist of ministers reading at length from mundane speeches penned by civil servants – an embarrassment when compared with the vigorous and off-the-cuff exchanges during Prime Minister’s Questions at Westminster. However, it is unclear whether (and how) the new electoral system could bring about a departure from the faceless mass of quiet backbenchers who currently occupy many of the seats in the Dáil.
Other important aspects of Fine Gael’s political reform agenda include a reduction of the President’s term of office from seven to five years; a system of public petition to Dáil Éireann, similar to that created by the Lisbon Treaty in relation to the European Parliament; and constitutional recognition for four committees of the Oireachtas. In reality, it is difficult to see how these policies will really affect a major change in how Irish democracy works.
Of more worry for Deputy Kenny will be the internal divisions created by this document. Front-bench opposition at the party’s recent Árd Fheis caused Enda Kenny and his local government spokesperson Phil Hogan to remove any mention of list-elected TDs from the final, published edition of New Politics – though Hogan told the Árd Fheis that the issue would be considered in the future.
Meanwhile, Lucinda Creighton – considered by many to be one of the party’s rising stars – successfully spearheaded a revolt against Enda Kenny’s plans for gender quotas in the candidate selection process. It is not the first time the pair have been at odds with one another; reports in March of last year suggested that a visibly-upset Creighton walked out of a parliamentary party meeting following ‘patronising’ comments the leader made over positive media coverage she had received. Young Fine Gael, too, expressed considerable unhappiness with the contents of New Politics, branding various elements of it as ‘tokenistic’, ‘almost meaningless’, ‘piecemeal’ and ‘a knee-jerk response to public anger’.
While the main opposition party’s proposals have generated plenty of column inches, it is hard to see how the area of electoral reform will capture the imagination of a public more concerned with unemployment and the banking crisis. Enda Kenny’s pledge to put these reforms to a referendum within one year of taking office has rendered himself and his party hostages to public acceptance of New Politics; rejection of the proposals at the ballot box would deal a potentially fatal blow to a government still in its infancy. For now, the Fine Gael leadership should focus on uniting the party behind Kenny and convincing the Irish people that he is the right man to lead the country.