Aftermath of the Irish Election

I recently ran in the Irish general election that was held on Feb. 26th as an Independent (Non-Party) candidate, campaigning on a platform of direct digital democracy.

As some of you may know, this election did not deliver a clear winner or even a clear coalition. A month on, a government has yet to be formed. While some prefer to see this as an argument in favour of the need for stronger government and an end to Independents like me, my view is that it is but one further indictment of the party system. The major parties did badly because they refused (for years) to listen to the people who voted for them, and utterly failed during their campaigns to credibly address any of the mistakes they had made or even to present reasonable solutions for the future. Despite these failures, rather than getting on with the business of governing the country, we are left in limbo waiting to see whether any of them (Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Sinn Fein) will condescend to form a government with each other. This is a distinct possibility for Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, who between them received nearly 60% of all seats with less than 50% of first-preference votes. The constantly trumpeted line that the public voted for the establishment parties is thus wildly over-stated, and there has definitely been a serious push towards alternative politics.

I definitely noticed this while out canvassing, with most people at least open to the idea of more participatory politics and a surprising number already fairly well-informed about participatory initiatives at home and abroad. Most surprisingly of all, I could knock on people’s doors out of the blue and they would not only answer the door, but read through my literature there and then and really engage with the issues.

However, the move towards more citizen participation in Ireland was definitely bigger than just my own campaign. There is a substantial push on to allow citizen-initiated referenda in a manner similar to Switzerland that is spearheaded by groups like 1Yi, Reinstate48, and the political party Direct Democracy Ireland. The Green Party of Ireland, which won two seats in the election, has also flirted with participatory budgeting for a number of years. In addition, online tools like www.smartvote.ie, which allowed people to see how their views match up to politicians’ platforms, and Uplift, which crowdsources policy, have received a substantial level of interaction.

What this means is that despite the fact that democratic reform is a fairly abstract issue, and that we have multiple severe and immediate problems facing our nation (200 billion Euros worth of debt, an acute housing shortage, a healthcare system so badly run that people try just about anything to avoid going into a hospital, and taxes up to our eyeballs), democracy was not a fringe issue in this election. It was not a hot button issue, to be sure, but it wasn’t out there on the margins, either.

I was given the opportunity to record a short video by the national broadcaster, to appear on prime time national talk radio and television, and received coverage in local and national newspapers. At times, members of the established political parties engaged directly with my ideas and those of similar groups, which means that we have succeeded in opening up a new front in the spectrum of political debate that they feel they need to engage with or face losing votes.

This is nowhere more apparent than in the fact that establishment parties have become increasingly friendly towards the idea of outsourcing contentious issues to the general public. The reasoning here is simple: Ireland went from being a very insular country to a very open one in an extremely short space of time. The vast majority of people are pretty happy with that, but, shall we say, the old ways run deep. And, as a consequence of STV, when you win a seat here, you rarely win it by much. There are probably few other countries where every vote is as precious as it is in Ireland, meaning that small but committed minorities are disproportionately powerful. This is all the more true for the two largest parties Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, who hold practically indistinguishable policies in most areas. Throw in a hot-button issue like abortion, and you will have the joy of seeing just how long a politician can talk around an issue while saying nothing at all (indefinitely). Pressure is building to have a badly overdue referendum on our abortion legislation (the Irish constitution calls for the life of mother and embryo to be protected equally with no guidance as to what happens in cases of conflict), but establishment politicians know that actually doing so is a huge risk – they probably won’t gain too many new voters, because there are more liberal people like me out there to scoop those up, and they will definitely lose that committed minority. Because they are between a rock and a hard place, there is increasing talk of holding a lottery-selected Constitutional Convention on the matter, so that the major parties can get over this issue while maintaining the appearance of having had nothing to do with it. This worked out well for Fine Gael on the issue of same-sex marriage last year, which originated in just such a Convention, with the party managing to take credit from the proposal’s supporters while seeming to escape flak from its detractors. It might not be the kind of sweeping change someone like me is after, but at least lottery selection is being used – and seen to be used – to loosen the death grip of the blocking minority in a constructive manner.

A further development are the changes to the representative institutions themselves. The Irish government is extremely powerful vis-à-vis the lower house of parliament (called the Dail), and Irish government parties have tended to exercise a high level of control over their backbenchers in the past. Like many other countries, this means that the average backbencher is not being paid to think, but rather to vote according to orders. Genuine debate on the floor is minimal, not to mention often illogical and false, when the government doesn’t just guillotine it in the first place. The larger parties have always upheld this system, but now that none of them has anything approaching a remotely strong position (even the largest party, Fine Gael, is 29 seats short of a bare majority in what is only a 158 member body), the unfairness of this system has suddenly become manifest to all, with increasing demands for change within party ranks. All of the major parties seek to pass these relatively minor alterations off as the nth degree of ‘democratic reform’, which is interesting in itself as they are obviously attempting to attach the broad campaign theme of citizen participation to their own manoeuvres, so that next time around they have something to write under that rubric in their campaign literature.

So, in summary, for someone who loathes elections as much as I do, I had an astoundingly good time campaigning, and will definitely be running again, as well as taking part in activities between elections. The establishment electoral system is – unsurprisingly – resistant to change, but we definitely moved the needle towards more decentralized government.

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10 Responses

  1. Roslyn Fuller

    Thanks very much for you informative and insightful account of the Irish election. It was of special interest to me because I lived in Ireland for two years as a PG student (1951-53) and have followed Irish developments ever since. If you had told me then that Ireland would vote to recognise gay marriage in my lifetime, I, or anybody else for that matter, would have said you are nuts.

    I would suggest that the situation you outline in regard to public opinion is the same in a lot of countries. The politicians are just vote chasers, and are perplexed a lot of the time about what to do. People generally are very dissatisfied, and have quite a lot to say about why, but they are equally uncertain about what to do, especially because the ideas floating around tend to concentrate on changes to the system as a whole, but none of them looks to be a clear winner. Some things do get done where there is a substantial public opinion about them. That, I argue, is the way forward in our present situation, as I try to explain in The Demarchy Manifesto: for better public policy. ( Imprint Academic, 2016)

    Don’t start with the big questions, but with specific practical problems and organise a completely open public debate on the matter. Concentrating on specifics rather than confused big issues offers a much higher chance of getting agreement. The crucial thing is to divorce that discussion completely for power struggles and vote-catching and special interests.

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  2. Roslyn,

    > Most surprisingly of all, I could knock on people’s doors out of the blue and they would not only answer the door, but read through my literature there and then and really engage with the issues.

    Do you really think that such in-the-doorway conversations are a meaningful form of political discussion? To me they seem like just electoralist pretend-play.

    > outsourcing contentious issues to the general public […] but at least lottery selection is being used – and seen to be used

    Don’t you think there a substantial risk that such a use of allotted bodies, rather than serve as some sort of a pathway to sortition-based government, will lead to widespread distrust of the whole mechanism of sortition?

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  3. John,

    > The politicians are just vote chasers, and are perplexed a lot of the time about what to do. People generally are very dissatisfied, and have quite a lot to say about why, but they are equally uncertain about what to do

    Sure – people don’t sit down to fashion coherent policies since that requires a lot of effort and yields nothing without the power to implement the policies they come up with.

    However, the notion that politicians are just out to get votes but have no definite idea of what to do with the power they gain is incoherent. Why would they bother to go through all the effort of gaining power unless they have some use for it?

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  4. @Yoram

    “Do you really think that such in-the-doorway conversations are a meaningful form of political discussion? To me they seem like just electoralist pretend-play.”

    Obviously, I’m campaigning to get rid of elections, so I don’t qualify canvassing as sufficient, but I also would not say that it is meaningless.
    I suppose it depends on the candidate and on whoever they are talking to. Some people choose to take your flyer and shut the door, other people will talk to you for half and hour or longer. And when I say talk, I mean grill.
    Irish voters are extremely well informed, and you can easily wind up sitting on someone’s couch, drinking their tea and using their calculator to explain your views on taxation. Also, the majority of people don’t need to be prompted to tell you exactly what they think about any given topic.
    Canvassing can be quite different here than say, the US and there can be an enormous flow of genuine communication.
    Of course, I can only speak for myself – I don’t know what happens with other politicians. Belonging to a party automatically reduces your scope for action.
    However, I would rather people were able to communicate their information directly with each other in future, instead of a politician being a bottleneck to all of it.

    “Don’t you think there a substantial risk that such a use of allotted bodies, rather than serve as some sort of a pathway to sortition-based government, will lead to widespread distrust of the whole mechanism of sortition?”

    At the moment, anyway, I don’t think people are seeing it that way, because among those who are aware of it, the last Constitutional Convention has a pretty good reputation. Blame has mainly attached to the government for not implementing too many of their recommendations. In a way, the Constitutional Convention was automatically a pathway to sortition-based government here, because we can only change our constitution through referendum. Therefore, what happens (in the ideal case) is that a randomly-selected body makes a suggestion (let’s say to repeal the 8th amendment, the contentious abortion clause), then the government calls a referendum on that issue. Quite similar to the nomothetai and ekklesia, really. The sticking point here, is that the government has danced around putting the recommendations to referendum when the recommendations don’t suit them. Everyone knows this, though. I think the worst that could set in is a kind of ennui, but not yet. On balance the experience so far has been positive enough that that hasn’t happened, and I don’t think the (future) government would be stupid enough to call another convention if they weren’t willing to put anything on the table afterwards. If anything, right now, it seems to be leading to increased distrust of politicians, who are (rightly) perceived as the blockers on some issues.
    Putting the most contentious points into the sortition + referendum model will, if anything, really energize people. The same-sex marriage referendum was positively cathartic, and an abortion referendum would equally clear an issue that has been festering for a long time.
    If anything, I think politicians may be unleashing something they later won’t be able to control. I think it was Naomi who once pointed out that this is often how change happens – because someone in power sees short-term advantage in it.
    I’d like to see a lot more, of course, but it’s possible we may be at the beginning of something here.

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  5. @John Yes, I’d say that Ireland has changed an awful lot since the 1950s in its social outlook. It’s quite fascinating in that sense how many different, overlapping Irelands there are. I came here in 2006 (as a PG student!) and stayed. If you ever fancy a return visit, I’m sure we’d be happy to host you :-)

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  6. Yoram,

    You asked:
    >”However, the notion that politicians are just out to get votes but have no definite idea of what to do with the power they gain is incoherent. Why would they bother to go through all the effort of gaining power unless they have some use for it?”

    At least at the relatively low level of the Vermont State Legislature I think MOST of the elected members have no particular “idea of what to do with the power they gain.” A few ideologues like me did, but most ran for office for the honor and ego enhancement of being deemed important within their community. I distinctly remember thinking how odd it was that most of my colleagues came with no agenda nor goals they wanted to achieve beyond RE-election. They might DEVELOP pet projects and legislation while serving, but very few were motivated by an interest in feathering their own nest NOR achieving any deeply held public policy goals (good or bad). It seemed to be mostly about ego or feeling important (the way someone else might try to become a champion ballroom dancer or bonsai tree grower) to receive public honors.

    Now when you get to NATIONAL elections, the people who go to THAT amount of effort may be a different kind of animal altogether.

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  7. As the only one of us who has served as an elected politician, we need to take Terry’s point very seriously. While philosophical psychology does distinguish between honour and ego enhancement (amour de soi and amour propre), nevertheless there is a continuum of human motivations and it is simply false to claim that politicians are motivated by narrow self interest. The desire for public honour, when properly channeled, can be of great social utility.

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  8. PS regarding John Burnheim’s latest thread, I would be inclined to say that internet blogging has a lot more to do with amour propre (making cute points and dissing one’s opponents) than amour de soi. Honourable conduct is more likely when one has to actually do something (and account for the consequences) rather than just mouthing off (as would be the case with demarchic councils).

    One of the problems with the US primaries is that all the candidates can do is talk — they change their tune markedly (for the better) when presented with the opportunity of genuine power. If the only power a demarchic council had was to influence public opinion, then they are likely to be filled with wannabe Trumps and Cruzes. Demarchic anarchists are entirely mistaken in their view that power is the problem — it’s the solution.

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  9. Terry,

    > At least at the relatively low level of the Vermont State Legislature I think MOST of the elected members have no particular “idea of what to do with the power they gain.” […] It seemed to be mostly about ego or feeling important

    Self-aggrandizement is a rather definite agenda, and the power gained through elections can certainly be used to further that agenda, even if there is no concrete plan determined in advance of how this is to be done. Willingness to use political power for the benefit of oneself and of political allies will be correlated with successful self-aggrandizement.

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  10. Yoram,

    >Willingness to use political power for the benefit of oneself and of political allies will be correlated with successful self-aggrandizement.

    Needless to say this would also be the case with political representatives selected by lot.** If this is true then minorities under sortition might well feel the need for constitutional safeguards (dismissed by hard-line kleroterians as anti-democratic).

    ** although such persons may not seek power, there is no good reason to believe that they would be immune from the effects of Acton’s dictum.

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