- The final results are now in: 76 Fine Gael, 37 Labour, 20 Fianna Fáil, 14 Sinn Féin, 5 United Left Alliance and 14 Independents. It is a particularly good year for Independents, who since 1933 have collectively only before hit double figures 1948 and 2002. They are a disparate group, so here is a brief summary of their backgrounds.
- Stephen Donnelly for Wicklow
Studied Engineering in UCD and MIT and Public Administration and International Development at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Worked for McKinsey, an international management consultancy firm.
- Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan for Roscommon–South Leitrim
Ming has been standing for election since 1997, when he stood in Galway West, against his then landlord Frank Fahey. He contested the 1999 European election and the 2002 general election unsuccessfully, but was eventually elected to Roscommon County Council in 2004. He became Mayor of the Council in 2010. He first became noted for his campaign to legalize cannabis, and from an interview this week, his focus will be on cutting the cost of government while making local government more meaningful.
- Tom Fleming in Kerry South
Fleming was a lifelong Fianna Fáil member, a councillor since 1991. He ran as John O’Donoghue’s running mate in 2002 and 2007 and left in January of this year when Fianna Fáil decided to run only one candidate.
- Noel Grealish in Galway West
Grealish was elected as a Progressive Democrat councillor in 1999. He became a TD in 2002 after Bobby Molloy did not contest the election. He acted as leader in 2009 when Ciarán Cannon left to join Fine Gael after the party had voted to dissolve. After the dissolution of the Progressive Democrats, he continued to formally support the government until September 2010. He will be voting for Enda Kenny on 9 March.
- John Halligan in Waterford
Halligan was elected to Waterford City Council as member of the Workers’ Party in 1999. He left the party in 2008 to vote in favour of service charges.
- Michael Healy-Rae in Kerry South
Son of Jackie Healy-Rae, who was an Independent TD and supporter of Fianna Fáil since 1997, Michael has been a councillor since 1999.
- Michael Lowry in Tipperary North
Elected first for Fine Gael TD in 1987, he was Minister for Transport, Energy and Communications from 1994 to 1996. He was dismissed as a Minister when it was revealed that Ben Dunne had paid for an extension to his house. He has contested every election since as an Independent, topping the poll on each of four occasions. He supported the Fianna Fáil/Green government from 2007 through to the vote on the Finance Bill earlier this year.
- Finian McGrath in Dublin North-Central
Elected as an Independent councillor 1999, he was first elected to the Dáil in 2002. He supported the Fianna Fáil/Green/PD government from 2007 to 2009.
- Mattie McGrath in Tipperary South
McGrath was a Fianna Fáil councillor from 1999 to 2007, when he was elected to the Dáil. He left the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party in 2010 in opposition to their support for the ban on the Meath stag hunt.
- Catherine Murphy in Kildare North
Murphy was a member of the Workers’ Party, but broke away to form Democratic Left in 1992, joining Labour in 1999. She has been an Independent since the 2004 local elections. She was a county councillor from 1991 until her election to the Dáil in 2005, in the bye-election caused by the appointment of Charlie McCreevy to the European Commission.
- Maureen O’Sullivan in Dublin Central
O’Sullivan is a schoolteacher and was Tony Gregory’s election agent. She was co-opted to Dublin City Council in 2008 and won the bye-election in 2009 caused by Gregory’s death.
- Thomas Pringle in Donegal South-West
Pringle was first elected to Donegal County Council in 1999 and was re-elected in 2004 and 2009. He was a member of Sinn Féin from January 2004 to November 2007. He is a patron of the left-wing Eurosceptic People’s Movement. He will be remembered in this election as the man who unseated Tánaiste Mary Coughlan.
- Shane Ross in Dublin South
At the time of his election on Friday, with the second-highest vote in the country, he was the longest serving Senator, having represented Trinity graduates since 1981. He was a member of Fine Gael in 1990s, being elected to Wicklow County Council for Bray in 1991 and unsuccessfully contesting the 1992 general election for the party. He is well known as a Sunday Independent journalist and as the author recently of The Bankers and Wasters.
- Mick Wallace in Wexford
Property developer and soccer manager who has supported left-wing causes. He has urged Labour to stay out of government with Fine Gael.
Of these, and to generalize just to get an idea of which of them will work together, Stephen Donnelly, Ming Flanagan and Shane Ross are most focused on efficient government spending, Tom Fleming, Noel Grealish, Michael Healy-Rae, Mattie McGrath and Michael Lowry would be centre-right or conservative constituency champions with backgrounds in centre-right parties, while John Halligan, Finian McGrath, Catherine Murphy, Maureen O’Sullivan, Thomas Pringle and Mick Wallace are broadly left-wing.
Political reform was an issue in this election, unusual in any case, and perhaps surprising given the state of the economy. But I think people realized that part of the reason the country found itself in the position it did was because of poor political institutions which came inordinate power to the executive and the lack of check on its decisions. All parties proposed changes on political reform, and as the two parties likely to form the government, Fine Gael and Labour, got scores of 74 and 68, the two highest scores, from the Political Reform Scorecard, there is no excuse not to expect changes here.
Ceann Comhairle by secret ballot
Already we’ve names mentioned for the position of Ceann Comhairle, as something to be divided in the spoils of government. But in the New Politics document, Fine Gael have called for the Ceann Comhairle to be elected by secret ballot by all TDs, as is the case with the Speaker of the House of Commons in Westminster. It can’t be done straight away, as the first order of business in a new Dáil is the election of Ceann Comhairle. But Enda Kenny could propose someone while declaring that he intended to appoint them as a Minister of State, someone who would be credible as an interim Ceann Comhairle. Within the first month, the standing orders could be changed, the interim Ceann Comhairle would step down, to be replaced by secret ballot.
A role for all TDs
A few times on Saturday and Sunday, I heard radio commentators ask Independent TDs what the point was of them in the Dáil if they would not hold balance of power. A Dáil election forms the legislature, which has a function in its own right, apart from being a sort of electoral college to elect the executive. Backbenchers, whether government or opposition, should have more power and part of this means being able to propose motions or legislation in private members’ time and reasonably expect that it will be open for a free vote of the Dáil. There are many issues, like stag hunting, which shouldn’t be considered a matter of a confidence vote but a free vote of all members.
In Britain, it is an embarrassment, but not the end of the world, if a government loses a vote it has proposed. Given the majority this government has, and the fact that there will inevitably be backbenchers unhappy with certain government proposals, this could be an opportunity to relax the party whip system, so that it wouldn’t be seen to be such a big deal if they were vote against. In Britain, when they had a vote last year on the introduction of deferred payments for college fees, there were members of both government parties who voted against or abstained.
Fewer but stronger committees
There have also been proposals to strengthen the committee structure, to give it greater powers of scrutiny over legislation and over appointments to state boards. Though Fine Gael intends to give permanent Constitutional recognition to certain committees, the structures could be put in place before such a referendum. The number of committees could be reduced and then strengthened in their power. A distribution of chairs by a d’Hondt or rotational system would reflect the diversity within the Dáil. It is fair that the positions in executive, at cabinet or junior rank, to be composed only of those who have formed the government, but that isn’t undermined by sharing this in the legislature. In the US House of Representatives, the current Chair of the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Domestic Monetary Policy is the radical Republican presidential hopeful, Ron Paul, who would like to shut down the Federal Reserve, something that made Majority Leader John Boehner wary of his appointment. Imagine if Shane Ross or Joe Higgins were to chair our own Banking and Financial Regulation Committee.
There were many other proposals on political reform proposed by the two incoming government parties, these are just a few of them that have most relevance to the Dáil itself which could be started straight away.
A few weeks ago now, I read Shane Ross‘s recent book, The Bankers, which I would recommend to anyone curious as to why the banking and financial crisis was so much worse here than in most countries.
Problems arose because both government and the banks were happy with a situation with only nominal financial, and the implicit assumption that they would help each other out if needed. While the regulators were supposedly independent, Sen. Ross shows how the cosy the relationship was between them and bankers. He opens with what he dubs the bankers’ last supper in Novemer 2008, to mark the retirement of the chairman of the Financial Regulator, Brian Patterson, where many of the major figures of Irish banking gathered. The event was hosted by Pat Farrell, president of the Irish Banking Federation, who also happened to be a former Fianna Fáil general secretary. Here we had a perfect case of the culture of the time, where bankers, those were supposed to regulate them, and actors in the political process mixed freely without any presumption of conflict.
Fianna Fáil doesn’t come out well in the book. In a chapter linking the triumvirate of bankers, developers and Fianna Fáil, Ross shows how entrenched property developers were as part of the party’s establishment in recent years. In the run-up to the 2007 general election, Bertie Ahern addressed the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, and one of those on the guestlist for the Irish delegation was property developer Sean Dunne. Dunne has had a long-standing relationship with Fianna Fáil, and his personal assistant, Anto Kelly, was a campaign manager for former Minister and Ceann Comhairle John O’Donoghue.
Or the Bailey brothers. Michael Bailey was famously reported by James Gogarty in the Planning Tribunal as answering “Will we, fuck” when asked if they would get a receipt for the payments they made in 1989 to Ray Burke. Justice Feargus Flood concluded in his interim report of the Planning Tribunal in 2002 that this payment had in fact occurred. To Fianna Fáil, that made little difference. They were as welcome as ever to the party tent at the Galway races, and that year Tom Bailey took time off work to canvass for the party in Roscommon. To Brian Cowen’s credit, the party tent in Galway has since been closed.
It was, of course, because they were in power that Fianna Fáil received such support from developers, but particularly because of the tax breaks for construction, which the Department of Finance had not even properly costed. These incentives artificially extended the boom years, and according to John Fitz Gerald of the ESRI, made a hard landing more likely, which had since proved to be the case. Similarly, warnings from UCD economist Morgan Kelly were also ignored, who showed that the trend in property bubbles in every economy since 1970 would predict anything other than a soft landing. I don’t mean to be partisan here, to isolate criticism of Fianna Fáil, but this is how it was. One might wonder if Fianna Fáil were more corrupt because they were in power more, or in power more because of their underhandedness and corruption. There are instances of the same with Fine Gael, who during their short stint in government from 1994 to 1997 had no difficulty finding builders to donate to clear their loan, and AIB and Ansbacher cleared a loan of £200,000 of Dr Garret FitzGerald which he had lost on shares.
Though it is what I took most from it, this book is not fundamentally about this corruption from the political side of things, but it does show how bankers managed to have such a free hand. The political process supported a system propping up their cronies in the banks and regulators. It is not a surprising statistic, given how used we have become over the past year to such facts, but John Hurley, Governor of the Irish Central Bank till a few months ago, earned more in 2008 than Ben Bernanke, Governor of the US Federal Reserve, who still has the power to set interest rates. Though not set by the public sector, the pay of the top Irish bankers is equally worthy of scrutiny. To take as an example, Brian Goggin, former Chief Executive of Bank of Ireland was paid €4 mn in 2007 and €3 mn in 2008, high even relative to his equivalent in the more successful Lloyds TSB or Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary. There is no reason to believe that the shareholders of the bank had to pay Goggin such a sum for fear that he would be snatched by a firm outside the country. Because this salary was possible with the cosy cartel of the banks supported by the taxpayer with an implicit guarantee from the government, which became real from last year, this is very much our concern.
With the government happy to see the steady trickle of revenue from stamp duty, they did little to discourage the 100% mortgages that have now left householders across the country in negative equity. We had a system of regulation that noticed none of the backdealing and switching of loans that was taking place, such that until October 2008, no bank was fined, while the Regulators found reason to fine The Irish Times and Phoenix €10,000 and €5,000 respectively. It was also a system that saw at times directors of AIB and Bank of Ireland on the board of the Central Bank.
I could go on. I’ve picked here only a selection of the facts that make it little wonder that the system went as it did. Ross does see a measure of hope because of our fortune of having Brian Lenihan, rather than one of the other members of the cabinet, as Minister for Finance. He rightly praises the departure he has made in recent appointments, such as choosing Prof. Patrick Honohan, an outsider to the old banker/regulator circles, to succeed Hurley as Governor of the Central Bank. Lenihan’s main obstacle to fiscal rectitude are his cabinet colleagues, all too eager to criticize the findings of the McCarthy Report. But Ross is strongly critical of NAMA, describing it as a bailout for the bankers.
My only minor criticism is the extent to which Ross involves himself in the analysis. As a journalist and Senator, he has been a voice in this period. While he does acknowledge (on p. 162) that he did not have the foresight to realize the perils of holding cash in Irish banks, in mentioning that our rejection of the Lisbon Treaty in June 2008 was part of the reason, as well as our bank guarantee, that we had lost favour in Europe, he does not mention his own advocacy of a No vote on that occasion. This is a minor quibble, and one of this nature is bound to occur in a commentary from someone so vocal. It is clearly well researched (and as a matter of full disclosure, I should add that I was working with Shane Ross while the finishing touches were being put on it), and stands as an entertaining, well paced and informative account of what went wrong with this sector of the Irish economy.
Three of the best cases for not abolishing Seanad Éireann to me seem to be the three elected for the University of Dublin, Shane Ross, David Norris and Ivana Bacik. Ironically, outside of wholesale abolition, their seats seem to be most at risk. I can understand the argument that if it were to be abolished now, we would lose the great independent voices they provide, but it is quite possible that we will lose them regardless.
The Seventh Amendment to the Constitution, approved in 1979 by 92%, allowed a redistribution of the three University of Dublin and 3 National University of Ireland seats to include graduates of other third-level institutions. Legislation has yet to be made for this provision, but Minister John Gormley has promised a change by the end of the year. This looks likely to be a move to reduce to one each the seats elected by Trinity and NUI, with the other four graduate seats elected by graduates of all other third-level institutions.
Any change of this nature implicitly accepts the idea that graduates deserve an extra voice in the Oireachtas by virtue of being a graduate. By the four general graduate seats not being tied to any particular institution, there would be no appeal in the campaign for that election to any institutional loyalty, as occurs particularly in the election for Trinity, because of its size and unity. These would be seats that would end up being fought by the political parties on a national scale, to all those who happen to be graduates. So rather than the current seats, which have long historic origins, dating back to 1613, and which have served a useful purpose by electing good Senators, an election under this proposal would be much more elitist in nature, fought on a national scale in the media but directed only at graduates of any institution. It’s easy to dismiss the current system as an historic quirk, but that would be the case under the proposed change.
However much one might dislike the idea that there are certain graduates and not others who have this extra franchise, the answer for those who find this distasteful is not to extend this elite section of the electorate, but to end it entirely. Until then, let us be thankful for the benefits of this inequality gives us in the form of the great Senators it has delivered to date.