As Europe's financial crises bed down into economic malaise, a portion of attention turns from fixing the continent's financial and regulatory systems to reforming its systems of governance.
Faith in politics in Europe is at a historic low. Eurofound, the Dublin-based EU agency devoted to improving living and working conditions, has charted an average 12% decline in people's level of trust in their political institutions over a two-year period to September 2009. Ireland was one of the worst-affected countries. One can only imagine how that decline has accelerated in the months since.
But there are now a few signs that the economic trauma inflicted on citizens has begun to percolate upwards and to induce change in national institutions. Governing elites that have to varying degrees been discredited now seek to augment parliamentary politics with more direct, deliberative and participative forms of democracy.
In the UK, the coalition government's recent European Union Bill provides for a 'referendum lock' that will apply to any future transfer of power from Westminster to Brussels. The coalition is committed to not transferring any powers to the EU before 2015 anyway, so the short‐term effect of the lock is minimal. But the policy is part of a wider move towards the use of direct rather than representative democracy and a quite radical programme of political reform (also including a referendum on electoral reform) which aims to devolve power so as to bring decision-making processes closer to the citizens which they affect.
In Ireland, a group of academics has started a lively dialogue at the politicalreform.ie website. They argue that the path to rebuilding the republic should start with a citizens’ assembly as "a means of citizens recapturing trust in their political process by taking ownership of the decision making process". This type of deliberative process is "not meant to replace representative or direct democracy, but to enhance and support it" though one site editor does suggest that in order for such forums to be useful, they should be able to put their proposals directly to the people via a referendum.
Whatever one thinks about this particular suggestion (and there are plenty more on the website), by surfing the internet, listening to the radio and reading the newspapers in Ireland one can sense a zeitgeist that is receptive to such proposals for political reform like never before. The hope that this sense generates is however tempered by acquaintance with the Irish people's endemic fatalism.
It is therefore reassuring to note that plans for political reform are not restricted to online, academic or conversational discourse. The opposition Fine Gael party, set to play a leading role in the next government, has put forward a New Politics programme that proposes sweeping changes including the abolition of the Seanad (the Irish Upper House of Parliament), a significantly strengthened parliamentary committee system, a reformed legislative process, an overhaul of the budgetary system and an Open Government Bill that would bolster transparency and protect whistleblowers. The Labour party, likely to form the other main wing of the next administration, has put forward its own robust proposals in a Private Parliamentary Members' Motion.
Ireland is in turmoil and much about its politics remains uncertain – from the accuracy of the polls to the date of the election to the economic context that will prevail next year. But such meaningful political reform is recognised as vital. The foreword to the December 2010 report of one of Ireland’s annual think-ins, the MacGill Summer School, notes that "several of the contributors, including a government minister, a former minister and a former head of government as well as political analysts of Irish and European politics are of the view that the Irish political system, as presently constituted, cannot produce good governance."
It remains to be seen if the parties in the next government will manage to settle on a high common factor rather than a low common denominator when it comes to the necessary reconstitution of that system. What is certain is that civil society will be piling on the pressure and that international eyes will be watching with great interest.
Little old Ireland has long served as a petri dish for politico-economic experiments in the EU. The poster child for the benefits of economic integration became the paragon of neoliberal ideologues and latterly the ideal of austerity. Wouldn't it be wonderful if it could now seize the moment to become an exemplar of sound and ethical governance?
More than a year ago Ireland's National Economic and Social Council argued that the country was faced with a five-part crisis that encompassed banking, fiscal, economic, social and reputational challenges. More recently, people have begun to speak of the Irish crisis as fundamentally a crisis of confidence. This is a persuasive perspective, and indeed the crisis seems to encompass many dimensions of that word. Citizens don't have confidence in their institutions, the world has lost confidence in Ireland, and as a result Irish people are no longer assured of their own abilities or future.
Regaining that confidence will take more than some fabled Celtic resilience. It will demand painful introspection and a quite radical determination to embed integrity throughout our institutions. The scale of this challenge demands that introspection be married with internationalism. We have local role models in Scandinavia, where trust, transparency and political participation are still sustained at admirably high levels (albeit in combination with a high cost of government). Meanwhile, many of our neighbours – in Iceland and in the UK for example – are attempting similar transformations.
Though the economic crisis rumbles on, the task of political renewal remains overdue and urgent. It is an exceptionally daunting undertaking but if we pull it off, others will once again be able to look to the northwest corner of Europe for inspiration as to how to adapt and thrive with confidence in an increasingly turbulent world.