It is encouraging that the current social and economic crisis has sharpened debate on reform of our political institutions and the way we ‘do’ politics in Ireland. However, it is disappointing that there have been few practical proposals to change the ‘clinic system’ which dominates the life of most TDs.
When we see pictures on the News of an empty Dail chamber during important debates, it is tempting to think that TDs are doing nothing for their salaries. In fact, of course, they are very busy in their Dail offices or in constituency ‘clinics’, writing to constituents.
In fact, most backbench TDs spend very little time on what would be considered normal parliamentary business in other countries, such as debating legislation and policy, questioning Ministers or investigating the uses and abuses of power. This is even true of Ministers, most of whom employ large staffs in their constituency offices, at our expense.
Most TDs will privately say that are unhappy with the amount of clinic work, and its increasingly competitive nature. On the positive side, clinics keep TDs grounded in the concerns of their constituents and provide an opportunity to discuss local issues.
On the other hand, the bulk of the time of TDs is taken up with giving the illusion of having influence over individual decisions which are in fact, quite rightly, beyond their reach. Typically, a constituent asks a TD to ‘look into’ an application for a house, a grant, a benefit or some other entitlement. The TD writes to the Minister, who passes the letter to the civil servant dealing with the decision. The civil servant drafts a reply from the Minister to the TD, and the TD writes to the constituent. None of this affects the constituent’s entitlement or speeds up a decision.
When I joined the civil service in 1980, one of the first things I learned was how to answer ‘reps’ (representations from TDs). A letter to a government TD is prepared for the Minister’s signature, using friendly language: “Dear Pat, I will look into the issue you raised with me about the grant for your constituent Ms XXX”. One to an opposition TD is assigned by the Secretary in formal language – “I am directed by the minister for XYZ to refer to your letter of …” These forms change from Government to Government, but most TDs still collude in the illusion that they can speed up or affect decisions with ‘pull’.
On a larger scale, TDs who take an interest in policy and legislation, to the neglect of the clinics, often lose their seats.
The late Frank Cluskey, who lost his seat and the Labour Party leadership mainly because he was too honest to engage in the smoke and mirrors of the clinic system, famously remarked that most of what people visiting clinics wanted TDs to do was ”either impossible or illegal”
There are three fundamental problems with the clinic system as it stands.
Firstly, it distracts politicians and civil servants away from the policy work which they would otherwise be expected to prioritise.
Secondly, it de-politicises elections, encouraging candidates to compete as ‘hard-working local representatives’, rather than laying out different political proposals.
Thirdly the system disempowers citizens. Instead of knowing what we are entitled to as of right, we are encouraged to pray for the intercession of politicians.
None of the main political reform proposals from parties and commentators have practical suggestions on how to limit the clinic system. Some propose that the main clinic work should be shifted from TDs to councillors. Others, like Fine Gael, propose creating a sub-group of TDs who would not represent geographical constituencies. Fianna Fail and Dermot Desmond propose to remove Ministers from the Dail for the duration of the Government, though presumably they would still have to stand for election at the end of the term.
These proposals will not tackle clientalism for the same reason that the recent ban on TDs acting as councillors did not. As long as the clinic system remains untouched, any politician not competing in this illusory paper-chase will spend their life looking over their shoulders at colleagues who do.
Some of the measures to limit the worst aspects of the clinic system are fairly straightforward. Others will take a major cultural shift of the type that only really happens in times of crisis, like the present.
The system needs to be broken down both from below and above.
Citizens need to make it clear that we will no longer vote for candidates who promise to hold more clinics.
All the main parties, or at least the parties of the new Government, need to put their weight behind public information campaigns on the scale of the drink driving campaigns. These would explicitly state what is available by right and what politicians cannot do. – for example ‘Politicians can change the rules for everyone, but they cannot help you break them’.
This can be re-enforced by printing on various application forms for benefits and grants “canvassing will disqualify”, as the Public Appointments Commission already does for public jobs.
This will only work, however, if we invest seriously in empowering ourselves. We have a good system of citizens’ information centres, but this needs to be expanded and upgraded. It needs to be widely dispersed and well staffed to replace the TDs’ clinics as the main source of information and to guide people, as needed, to the right officials to talk to.
In addition, community development projects in disadvantaged communities need to be strengthened and resourced, along with community law centres and free legal advice centres. The various ombudsman functions also need to be strengthened and made more accessible.
In practice, any form of citizens’ empowerment is often seen as a threat by TDs. It is no coincidence that community development and legal and information centres are suffering heavily from current cuts.
While there is strong public demand for more effective politics in the current crisis, change will not come without pressure from below.
Most politicians agree privately that clinics make it hard for them to find the time to engage with policy. However, few politicians would risk refusing to ‘help’ and application, and most people will invoke a TD’s help ‘just in case’ as long as this is possible.
In addition, as Darwin would have recognised, the people in a position to reform the system are those who are still in the Dail precisely because they are good at clinic work, whatever their original reservations.
I have been asked why I am running for election to the Seanad rather than the Dail, given its limited role in policy making. One of the main reasons is that it is currently the only route into parliamentary debate which does not involve clinic work. It is not surprising, therefore, that so many of the big changes in Irish life, from legalisation of contraception to gay rights and climate change legislation, were first raised in the Seanad by University Senators. The big challenge is to reform both Dail and Seanad so that this type of illusion-free politics can be expanded to encompass the whole population rather than its current narrow base.
This is the challenge we need to take up in the next Dail and Seanad.