Following the change in the parliamentary landscape as a result of the general election results various suggestions have been thrown about by bewildered members of the political class – political parties, journalists, commentators, academics and so on – who seem unable to understand why their template for parliamentary stability and the preservation of their status-quo was not followed by the electorate.
Rather than face up to the shift in public opinion away from government by one monolithic party or the other, it is the system that is at fault, they say. Something has broken in the system and in order to get back to the old stability it is necessary to tinker with the system. That is in part where this talk of ‘reform’ comes from, although there are other good reasons to talk about reform of a parliamentary system that is anything but democratic, and in too many ways is dysfunctional.
The most worrying suggestion so far is that we need to move to a fixed-term election system – that governments should be able look to a full five year term other than in extraordinary circumstances such as, perhaps, a successful no-confidence motion although these have been exceedingly rare in the history of this State.
Any talk of fixed-term government must be scotched.
If this is a republic, and the evidence including the absence of a constitutional definition of Ireland as a republic does not support that claim, then power ultimately rests with the citizens. But the political class immediately tempers that with the claim that it is a representative democracy and that once the citizens have done their electoral duty and selected a set of TDs for each constituency power no longer resides with the citizens but with their representatives, the elected TDs. In other words, other than in the minute pressure that individual citizens may apply to a particular TD or set of TDs, the citizens are redundant to the exercise of power between elections.
That doesn’t sit well with Cicero’s assertion over two thousand years ago that the republic is owned by the people. Nether does it sit well with the assertion in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, the centenary of which we commemorate this year, which states “We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible”.
One of the authors of the Proclamation was Patrick Pearse. In one of his most important political writings, The Sovereign People, written in 1916, Pearse had this to say “And I come back again to this: that the people are the nation; the whole people, all its men and women; and that laws made or acts done by anybody purporting to represent the people but not really authorised by the people, either expressly or impliedly, to represent them and to act for them do not bind the people; are a usurpation, an impertinence, a nullity”.
That is the nub of the argument against fixed-term government. It should go without saying, based on our experience, that most pre-election manifestos contain as much fiction as fact, and perhaps more of the former than of the latter. And we know from experience that much of what is included in policies legislated on by any government during its term emanate from sources outside government, including, as we also know, from EU institutions and from corporate lobbyists, and others. There is no shortage of evidence of this during the terms in office of the past two administrations, one Fianna Fáil led, the other Fine Gael led.
In a republic, if it is indeed a republic, the people must have the power to force a government from office when that government offends against the democratic wishes of a majority of citizens. Whether the people choose to exercise that power, and how, are separate issues, but that threat must exist in a democratic republic. It is the most solid bulwark against tyrannical rule. The notion of fixed-term government weakens that bulwark.
Far from trying to consolidate power in the hands of the political class, we should, if we really want to live in a republic, find ways to assert our position as the ‘sovereign’. We should have available to us the power to recall TDs who transgress against their mandate, and we should also have the power to bring down government when that is necessary, perhaps through petition or plebiscite, or through mass mobilisation of citizens. It can be done.
Democracy is that important. We should never hand it over to the political class for safe-keeping. Their interests are not our interests. We should have learned that by now.
We must resist the notion of fixed-term government. The Left must take the lead in that battle for more democratic control, not less.