Monday, 31 October 2011

Why did the Irish make such a mess of democracy?

Fair play to you Irish. What a great election! The thrilling campaign careered from the gay Joycean scholar candidate being accused of defending a Palestinian child abuser to the Eurovision Song-winning Christian Fundamentalist candidate screeching about car crashes, slashed tyres and attempted murder. The nation watched  as the ex-IRA leader shot down and killed the corrupt and greedy Dragon’s Den ogre, and that was just the Live TV debate!

At the start of the campaign all the presidential candidates lined up on the lawn outside Áras an Uachtaráin, and I wondered where else on earth I’d ever seen such a disparate collection of fading celebrities and ageing politicians gathering to do battle.

And then I was confused. Was this the Irish Presidential Election or the new series of Strictly Come Dancing?

Thanks goodness for Martin McGuinness for metaphorically knocking some sense into the Irish people, who were unbelievably yet again drawn to the guy with the big car and fat cigar. When will you ever learn?

Well, maybe you have, because you voted in the right man. On a national level, Michael D. is a proven humanitarian, peace advocate and a champion of the arts. On a personal level, it feels great that the Head of State of my adopted country is somebody who I have chatted with on the street several times. However sad and egocentric it may be, I’m delighted that the new President knows me by name. We have collaborated together on a few occasions when I was working with teenage Travellers, and way back in 1993 I interviewed him for this colyoom, (excerpts from that interview can be posted here soon, if any colyoomistas would like to see them!).

The diversity of the candidates reflects well on the growing enlightenment of this republic, but the process that they had to undergo to become candidates appears farcical to this Englishman.

After all those years of oppression you had a blank canvas.
After all those years of colonial masters dictating the limitations of your freedom, you had the freedom to deny yourselves any limitations.

Depending on which Irish person happens to be chewing my English ear off, you Irish suffered either 400, 700, or 800 years of brutal colonialism. After all those centuries of having alien overlords imposing their laws upon your country, Irish people could finally choose their own constitution.

You did not have to pander in the slightest to the political model that had been harshly visited upon your country for aeons. You were free to build a fair and just electoral system. You had the chance to devise simple political models that might draw joyful breaths from hearts of every free Irish citizen. Instead, you made an absolutely shabby and disgraceful mess of your democratic processes.

Significant problems arise in both England and Ireland with the elections of the Upper House and Head of State. The English rather ingeniously avoid any controversial democratic practices concerning these two bodies by avoiding elections altogether. Unfair and anachronistic it may be, but at least they don’t pretend that in these areas democracy is at work.

Much as I dislike the House of Lords and feel at best ambivalent about the monarchy, both arcane institutions are starting to compare pretty favourably with the way you Irish have chosen to elect your Upper House and Head of State.

Do you, an educated Irish person, have a clear understanding of who represents you and why? I doubt it. I made some effort to understand how the Seanad is elected, but instead decided you couldn't make it up.

Of the Seanad's 60 members, 11 are elected by the Taoiseach, 6 by university graduates, while 43 are selected from 5 panels, which have a number of members allocated as 5; 11; 11; 9; 7 respectively, with a minimum to be selected from each sub-panel allocated as 2; 4; 4; 3; 3.

You had a blank canvas, but instead chose that good old 11:6:43 ratio that you find naturally occurring absolutely nowhere in nature, mathematics or common sense.

Skipping over the entire debacle of which particular privileged sectors of Irish society are allowed to elect Senators, we arrive at the happy fact that if you want to become President of Ireland, all you have to do is be an Irish citizen, over 35, and nominated by at least 20 members of the Oireachtas or at least 4 local authorities.

Why pluck these seemingly random and pointless numbers from the ether, and apply them to your constitution? Why does your Head of State need the approval of at least 4 local authorities? What possible advantage might people who plan roundabouts and organise wheelie bin runs have over your own decision-making abilities?

You had a blank canvas. Why make it all so complicated and elusive? Why not choose a number, any number, say 1,000 signatures, and a person can run for President?

After 20 years of living here, I suspect that the needless involvement of local authorities has a great deal to do with gombeen politics and nothing more. If Sean Gallagher had not been able to take the ‘Roundabout’ route he’d have had to parade his true Fianna Fail colours, at a time when that is political suicide.

Such circuitous Irish behaviour as the Presidential candidature process is often excused as a post-colonial reaction to years of trying to secure freedom by keeping secrets from the Powers-That-Be. Now your very own Irish Powers-That-Be are able to deny freedom to the Irish people by obfuscation within their own constitution.

After all those years you had a blank canvas. Your electoral systems could have been gloriously simple. Yet the very same Celtic twirl of thought that created the Back Door system in the GAA Championship, whereby a team can beat another in a knockout competition and later lose to the same team in the final, has created an electoral Jackson Pollock.

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