There’s a productive tension at the heart of democratic republicanism. Government by, for, and of the people gains a specific meaning when the people are citizens, not subjects; the paramount republican principle is a citizenry, not subject to arbitrary power (a monarch or dictator, for instance), supporting and defending the common good in their own self-interest. That common good occupies the space between absolute personal autonomy on one side and on the other a structural relationship of democratically agreed rules, regulations, and legalities that makes it possible for us all to share the available space. The price of republican democracy is eternal vigilance at the points where those two meet.
As a republic, we’re still a work in progress. Somewhere between the programme of the First Dáil and now, we’ve forgotten what it was that we were willing to stand up for. And we’ve really been falling down on the eternal vigilance thing, too.
Power, whips, and guillotines
Ideally, in a democratic republic, power is dispersed and flows freely through a constitutional or judicial branch (in Ireland, the Supreme Court), an executive branch (the Taoiseach and Cabinet), an independent legislative branch (the Dáil and Senate), and on through to an independent local government, and active citizens participating in an active and deliberative democracy.
And at every one of those levels, our democracy is broken.
The President is the Head of State but not the Head of Government and has a relatively modest range of functions, ‘exercisable and performable by him only on the advice of the Government’, as Conor O’Mahony points out:
In simple terms, the President must, for the most part, do what he or she
is told. Indeed, Article 12.9 provides that the President may not even
leave the State without the Government’s permission.
This is just one way our republican constitution mirrors the monarchy that we rejected and against which we rebelled. To match their constitutional monarch, we invented an entirely performative president with procedural functions but no power.
The Supreme Court is the court of final appeal and exercises judicial review over Acts of the Oireachtas to ensure compliance with the Constitution. But the cavalier way in which successive Governments ignored the Supreme Court ruling in the ‘X’ case for thirty-one years—and then enacted legislation that limited the Court’s finding to a meaningless sliver of its original intention—says something about the Court’s actual, if not constitutional, place in the structure of our democracy.
Executive Branch: The Constitution gives executive power to the government—the Taoiseach and the Cabinet—to carry out laws with the assistance of the civil service, police force, and military. The authority vested in the executive branch has evolved over the century, such that all meaningful power in the state rests with the Taoiseach and (so far, invariably) his closest allies. No dissent will be publicly heard from the Cabinet table under the general rubric of ‘shared responsibility’. And no opposition will be heard from the Government benches under the discipline of the whip.
Legislative Branch: The Oireachtas—the Dáil and the Senate—has the sole power to make new laws. It’s nominally bicameral, but it doesn’t act that way. To a great extent, that’s because our founding fathers again stuck to the Westminster model and gave the Dáil ‘the primary role in relation to legislation as it is directly elected by the people’. Like the UK House of Lords, the Senate isn’t democratically elected.
The Senate. Senators can refuse to pass a Bill passed by the Dáil, but the Dáil won’t care, because should the Seanad do so, ‘the Dáil has the power . . . to pass a resolution declaring that the Bill is deemed to have been passed by both Houses’ (oireachtas.ie).
Individual Senators can bring forward Private Members’ Bills but not money bills or bills to amend the Constitution. And, whereas the Senate can’t stop a Dáil Bill from becoming law, the Dáil can refuse to pass a Bill from the Senate. Consequently, the Senate is redundant in any meaningful sense of the word and all legislation happens in the Dáil.
The Dail: The Dáil itself, however, doesn’t actually legislate as such. The executive branch presents a bill for ‘debate’ and bludgeons it through the parliamentary process using the whip or, as a last resort, the guillotine.
In theory, the Dáil has constitutional responsibility for oversight of the executive branch. Such oversight is an essential parliamentary undertaking to hold the Government to account. In practice, however, that oversight is entirely notional. A government that is both in parliament and nominally accountable to parliament isn’t, in fact, accountable to anyone while it maintains a majority and wields the whip.
The whip is consequently a means by which a democratically elected government can act like a dictatorship by silencing representatives elected to speak for the people and hence by silencing the people.
Local Government. Currently, Irish local authorities perform fewer functions than similar municipalities across Europe, according to Mary Murphy in Democracy Works If You Let It (forsa.ie).
A reinvigorated and independent Council with the authority to take care of its own business and control its own budget is essential to the dispersal of power that republican democracy demands. But the reality is that a relentless process of centralising power over the last century has stripped local government of any but minor functions. In 2014, ‘reforms’ reduced the numbers of councillors from 1,627 to 949 and reduced the functionality of those remaining. In an ongoing process of sending power and control back up the line, new public management processes and changes in administration, evaluation and control mechanisms ‘increased bureaucratic power at the expense of political representatives’.
The hoovering of power from the Councils to the centre brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to the Taoiseach and his closest allies, with whom all real legislative power lies.
Essentially, between elections, the Taoiseach may govern by diktat. That is arbitrary power. But remember a free citizenry not subject to precisely that? Remember eternal vigilance? Dissent is a duty of citizenship, at the Cabinet table, in the legislative chamber(s), and on the streets. Our elected legislators must have the freedom to disagree without penalty with any or all legislation, no matter who puts it forward. Without that minimal requirement, we cannot call ourselves either a republic or free.
Governance by democratic representation mandates that our elected representatives, including members of the Cabinet (we don’t pay them more to represent us less), can and do vote freely, according to their conscience, and mindful of their responsibility toward their electorate.
Like I said, a work in progress.
Bring Back the Dual Mandate
Our intentionally elitist and redundant Senate represents a serious democratic deficit. A democratically elected second chamber with genuine legislative power would broaden the base on which political power rests. To achieve that broader reach, however, we need to capture the same voters from a different perspective, as it were, animated by a different set of issues. One readily available and satisfyingly democratic solution would be to elect Senators on a city- or county-council basis such that they would simultaneously be members of both the Senate and the Council. This renewed dual mandate would create a direct conduit, active in both directions, from national to and from local government, and from there, to and from the community.
That conduit would devolve power away from the centre if and only if, at one of its ends is a local government with powers to legislate locally and to control its own budget. And at the other end is an assembly of democratically elected Senators exploring common ground nationally while representing the local interests of their own county.
Recent exercises in deliberative democracy and successful Citizens’ Assemblies have shown how we can move toward greater constructive participation by individual citizens in the democratic process. As Elaine Byrne writes, the focus will be on the capacity of the people ‘to impact meaningfully on decision making rather than the paltry endorsement of a fait-accompli policy agenda’ (‘The Democracy of a Republic’, in Up the Republic, ed. Fintan O’Toole).
The Constitution gives local government responsibility for providing ‘a forum for the democratic representation of communities . . . exercising and performing powers conferred by law’ (gov.ie). Fulfilling that role requires creating and maintaining a political space in which citizens’ voices can be heard. Local Government in Ireland no longer has the authority or the funding to do any such thing.
Our democracy is broken: a President with no power or purpose, a Supreme Court with no muscle, a redundant second chamber, a de jure executive branch with potentially dictatorial powers, and a system of local government that has been both decapitated and kneecapped.
If self-governing republican freedom is shared among equal and interdependent citizens, so is responsibility for maintaining and sustaining it. And that requires active participation from all of us in determining our shared future. It requires that we all, individually and collectively, take responsibility for the state we’re in. Our democracy is broken, and we need to do something about it.