This article by Dr. Niamh Hardiman on the governance crisis in Ireland sums up all the necessary political reforms that are necessary to improve public policy. Central to this is reform of the Irish parliament. But one crucial factor is missing: ideational differences between the main political parties that go before the electorate.
This is central to explaining policy outcomes in other small open European countries. The negotiated governance regimes of the Netherlands, Sweden, Belgium and Denmark emerged out of an ongoing historical compromise between competing ideological choices (both in terms of economics and social norms) among distinct political movements that ended up as political parties). The attempt to constitute a cross-class political coalition led to enhanced policy capacity in the state. In many ways, Ireland achieved this in Northern Ireland, but not in the Republic.
In the UK, we can clearly see the importance of party choice. Under Blair there was a significant shift toward human capital investment (or productive social policy). This conditioned a large part of the public policy regime for 10 years. Under the Tories there has been a radical shift back to neoliberal economic orthodoxy – which is conditioning policy debate and decision making. No amount of parliamentary, institutional or public sector reform would change this. It is the party of government that matters.
So whilst a reform of formal institutions is necessary in Ireland, it is not likely to change what really matters for policy outcomes – competing political coalitions capable of forming governments with qualitatively distinct political programs. Social partnership was an attempt to incorporate civil society interests into a broad based strategic plan aimed at policy reform, but it was always trumped (or constituted) by the electoral priorities of Fianna Fáil. It was the ideas of the FF and the PD’s that mattered.
Although it sounds almost cliched to say ‘we don’t have a left-right divide in Ireland’, its importance for policy debate and political reform cannot be underestimated. Political parties make up government and condition public policy outcomes. Unless there is a significant shift among Irish political parties and citizens are given a real choice over the type of government they get (i.e. moving away from a choice between conservative center-right (FG) and pragmatic center-right governments) things are not likely to change. But history has shown that new political parties only emerge from active social movements. Therefore change has to be driven from below and not imposed from above. The watered down constitutional reform convention in Ireland is a case in point. It’s conservatism totally ignores the need for systemic change.
Arguably, Ireland is suffering the sclerosis of a one party state (containing Fianna Fail and Fine Gael), that never took political reform, economic rights or social democracy seriously. Radical reform requires new ideas and these can only come from political actors that are not embedded in the state apparatus.