At this stage in the creation and appointing of a new government, the old practices still hold sway, despite claims that reforms are necessary and will be introduced. This present situation, even though appearing chaotic, could be used to begin the work of reform. Starting with the process of appointing a Taoiseach, the various steps in the current process are examined and an alternative, hitherto unused approach is advocated. The citizen’s duties ended when they voted. The task of government formation and the reform of government systems began then.
“If they can stop you from asking the right questions, you’ll never come up with the right answers.” (Frank Zappa)
In the present inter-regnum period in Ireland, the political situation is close to chaotic, the migrant situation at the Gates of Europe, is barbaric, harrowing, and coarsening of the body politic, whilst the future of the Eurozone countries is perilous.
For those reasons, I suggest that it is important that we start from where we are. Let us doggedly resist the easier option of trying to start from where we would like to be, or, more accurately, where the dream narrative, the “Story”, tells us that we are. This Story is promoted by the power brokers and their sponsors, and broadcast by the national and local media, growled at and sucked over by pundits, experts, analysts and commentators. They assure us in carefully selected snippets, in sound bites that are impervious to logic, and in neatly trimmed statements, that we are in good hands, that they know how to steady the ship, and set the course again for the ship of state. Most importantly, that Story makes clear to us, the electorate, where we stand and what role is allocated to us. Needless to say, that narrative also reassures us, because we do not like to be exposed to such uncertainties. Our politicians assure us with measured words that they will get it all sorted, that we needn’t worry, because, presumably, they believe that they know how to sort these things out. It is marginally annoying for them that there is a glut of independents, and a few “head-the-ball” characters queering the pitch these days, but it is really only a matter of time before the wiser, and more experienced of our politicians get it all sorted and our citizens can again sleep soundly at night. Ahem! And so …? Is that all?
Yet the aggression and madness rumbles on, mentioned in brief communiqués in the gaps between breathless updates on political progress at home. Updates on events in the sporting world insulate us from alarm. But the aggression and madness barges on and is not confined to Europe. The global economy, the global body politic, and the world community of peoples is facing unprecedented threats on all sides. As the beleagured (and apocryphal) General in the Crimean War is reputed to have said when his battalion was being overrun: “The only logical action is to attack”.
I mean “attack”, however, not as it is used in the general response to date in any of the arenas of conflict alluded to above, namely to attack and abuse those who differ from us. I speak of the need to attack the real problem in each case; to confront each threat in turn and by opposing, end them. Most “discussions” both online and between parties during the Election campaign, focussed on exchange of abuse, of put-downs, of half-truths, of insults, and Truth hid her head in Shame.
When large systems run out of control, positive feedback re-inforces the destructive forces already at work and the system ultimately fails. Whether that system is a modern commercial computerised system in a modern institution or an empire such as the Soviet Union was, it collapses into chaos. But history shows us that out of that chaos can come challenges, and facing challenges provides opportunities to resume development and stabilisation.
For example, returning to the present situation in Ireland, if stand-offs and threats of non-cooperation with particular opponents in the political arena concerning the overarching issue of forming a new government are the initiative or response, then chaos, continued failure to cope with national problems and the infliction of further pain and suffering on those sectors of society least able to cope with them, will be the inevitable result, if not sooner, then later. If the traditional horse-trading is taking place, then that merely postpones the collapse and increases the collateral damage to the innocent. By this I imply also that the seeds of the disastrous events culminating in the collapse of the present Fine Gael/Labour Government and its predecessor, the Fianna Fáil/Green Party Government, were sown at the formation of each Government respectively. The only way to find an effective solution and thereby avoid such happenings again, is for the competing parties, groups, and independents to rise above the immediate arena of conflict and to seek for solutions at a higher and more sophisticated level of complexity and with a somewhat different focus.
That would also require the combatants to put the good of the country and all its people before the short-term tactical gains from the manoeuvring of political parties and social classes. If current leaders are too greedy, if they lack the requisite skills, or are too unaware of the dynamics in the situation, to be able to do that, then other leaders must be sought or they might possibly emerge during that period. But more important even than leadership is the creation of a climate in which participants are supported to develop confidence in the fair-mindedness of others, even of those who oppose them. Remember that when the other person’s opinion is different to mine, that does not necessarily make them evil people. My confidence in my own position or in my policies does not necessarily mean that I am the only one who is right. In the recent Election campaign those, sadly, were not the prevailing attitudes and beliefs. Even now the negativity is still dominating despite the protestations.
Unfortunately, we have very little, if any, experience in this country of opposing camps taking a different approach. Compromise on butchered solutions and mashed promises is not healthy food for a democracy but it has been the staple diet of many coalition negotiations. It requires different skills and mindsets to find a way to a real consensus agreement on a range of national policies that opponents can agree to, and hopefully, with their hands on their hearts. In Ireland and in many other English-speaking countries we rarely differentiate between “consensus (note 1)” and “compromise (note 2)”, or between”authority (note 3)” and “power (note 4)”. I use those different definitions in the context of this article. Consensus also requires different leadership skills other than the blunt instruments of cute hoors to lead without expecting to have 100% control over decisions and policies that affect the Nation. If our political leaders and representatives face this challenge then we have some chance of developing a different political culture in Ireland. If not, then we need to think again.
The complexity of the present situation and the variety of bodies involved is a benefit because it should force those involved to take more time in seeking a resolution. If we reflect on processes in the natural world around us, a natural world of which we are a part, there is one very simple and clear model that has led to progress and resolution of differences in other fields of endeavour and life. The general principles are easy to understand and can firstly be described in general terms. Starting with a kernal, a core, or a single cell, the first step is growth to the point where the cell splits into multiple similar basic cells, Growth continues, and at the next stage, the separate cells re-integrate in a more appropriate formation with an additional, higher-order managing or controlling and support function added. Additional types of cells may also be created at this stage. This is the simple process of natural growth and of life in general that we are familiar with but it also underlies other less obvious growth processes. This basic process can be continued, not necessarily ad infinitum, but towards some inherent final state, in a spiral process, repeating the cycle of differentiation-integration-differentiation, eventually leading to growth or decay. The entire life cycle of the process is usually related to the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of the controlling-maintenance function generated and expanded at the start of each new cycle.
We saw some examples of this simple natural model during the life and death of the present government. Some Independents formed groups as embryonic parties, such as Social Democrats, with a simple, easily understood structure and basic operating procedures and rules. In other cases, some new or recently formed groups, came together with others to form a second degree integration with somewhat more complicated controlling and maintenance functions, as in the case of the AAA-PBP. The dissolution of the coalition is also an example of the life cycle at work. And this is where the model I have described above shows its usefulness for the identification of future directions, suggesting ways in which we can arrive at new processes including the identification of opportunities and threats. Both political parties and pundits, independents and smaller groupings, have regularly called for the revision of structures and procedures. This presents an opportunity to explore these changes in a meaningful way at a time of crisis.
At the moment, the existing parties, associations, embryonic parties, and independents are behaving like cells in a human body under attack by cancer cells, struggling to ward off the invaders and maintain the integrity of their particular position. The likely result is clearly obvious from the model, a slow, painful death, possibly mediated by external interventions to relieve the pain. On the other hand, our model above does offer hope.
Let’s begin by comparing the current narrative with the actual situation. The established parties, in particular, are dominating the debate, primarily in a negative way judging by their public utterances. Smaller and new parties, along with independent T.Ds. are circulating around the situation, like smaller fish around sharks, some to do menial cleaning up, others to serve as nourishment eventually! The clear message of the shared narrative is that political parties will nominate their leaders for the role of Taoiseach, presenting a programme for government for which they seek the support of others. This, of course, can only take place as the second item on the agenda for the upcoming meeting of the 32nd Dáil. Candidates for Cathaoirleach (Chairman) will first be nominated and the Cathaoirleach elected under Dáil procedures. That is the current narrative or Story! Is it the only one?
Subject to my understanding of the rules governing the nomination of a Taoiseach, I believe that there is another narrative, another Story, a Story that meets the requirements but that has not yet been explored. In brief, I suggest that the nomination of Taoiseach and the agreement of a Programme for Government, should not make one package. I suggest that the current discussions should focus initially on collectively developing and defining a new system with appropriate control and maintenance (or management) functions for the proposed government before policies are even discussed. Candidates seeking nomination as Taoiseach should then present their proposals to the Dáil and promulgate them in general including any reforms required in Dáil procedures. Success in making progress on these “cooler” issues of structure and working relationships would develop better levels of understanding and trust within the Dáil but also within the public at large. It would also pave the way for a more direct approach to preparing a joint platform for action.
In our National Elections, candidates are nominated by political parties but candidates may also be nominated without party affiliations as independent candidates. Why then are the political parties, some Independents, and the media in general promulgating the Story and perpetuating practice from previous Dáil elections of having nominations for Taoiseach put forward by parties complete with programmes for government? Not only this, but the Story has also developed the idea that the programmes for Government will also thereby be selected at the same time. Is this the constitutional position? Is it part of the procedures adopted previously? Or, is it a practice, that like “like Topsy, it just grow’d”?
I have read the Irish Constitution and searched for supporting evidence and here is what I have found.
- In Section 13.1.1, we read: “The President shall, on the nomination of Dáil Éireann, appoint the Taoiseach” (my italics)
- In Section 13.2.2, we read: “The President shall, on the nomination of the Taoiseach with the previous approval of Dáil Éireann, appoint the other members of the Government.”
- In Section 13.7.1, we read that the President after consultation with the Council of State, may communicate with the Houses of the Oireachtas by message or address on any matter of national or public importance (my italics).
- It is also stated elsewhere in the Constitution that such elections take place under the voting system for all State elections.
Nowhere have I found a defined process for the nomination and election of a Taoiseach. Accordingly I believe that it is reasonable to expect that the same democratic principles governing our other elections still apply.
Whatever its origins the current Story is part of the present situation and is being followed like Holy Writ! Is this then, the only Story, the official Story? In other words, when the Dáil nominates a Taoiseach for appointment, it also nominates the Programme for Government. Would it be possible to nominate a Taoiseach but allow time then for the nominated Taoiseach to prepare a Programme for election involving parties, groups and independents to participate. The nominated Taoiseach could also prepare a list of nominations for ministries and other roles at this time. In many respects, this would have similarities with a national government, but need not necessarily involve all members of the Dáil in the final arrangement. This approach would also allow for the nomination of an Independent as Taoiseach but with Ministers drawn from other parties and other Independents.
The electorate made its choice of Dáil representation based upon party manifestoes but in the current narrative the electorate is excluded from further discussions. These are the prerogative of party members only at special conferences. The main structure, however, of a working relationship between those considering coalition or other form of government described above may be sketched out at an early stage allowing, at a later stage, for further integration processes at a higher level than those currently in use. The structure and operating systems of a coalition should be mapped out describing how the structure would work, before the work of agreeing policies is discussed. It could also identify any reforms required in the Dáil. It could allow for both processes to proceed in parallel, but separately. It would be a sine qua non, an essential component of Cabinet that decisions be made by active consensus (note 1) if, in practice, this is not already the case.
I have had first-hand experience of consensus-seeking during my working life in such processes at work, not only in Ireland and in the West in general, but also in South-East Asia. In both regions it was remarkable to see the same rules applied but in different ways. In the West we tend to make decisions in control groups and then seek to win support for them in the larger community or organisation as well as in the subgroup tasked with implementing those decisions. In consensus seeking, all those involved in the decision, either directly or through representatives, are involved from the beginning, in defining the problem, agreeing a decision, right through to planning implementation. In the West, decisions are made quickly but implementation is very often problematical and delayed, it engenders distrust and undermines confidence in the leadership. In the consensus-seeking approach, also being used now in some aspects of our organisations in the West, the decision-making process takes longer but the implementation is quicker and cleaner and builds confidence and trust in the leadership.
Returning then to the present interparty negotiations, I would predict that if the current negotiation processes focus only at the current level of negotiating and bargaining about policy items, then no real progress will be made. If, instead, the negotiations park the policy bargaining bits and concentrate initially on developing a structure within which they would agree to work, then, depending upon the openness, the trust levels and the sophistication of their thinking, these groups could possibly develop to a stage, in a relatively short period of time, where they would have created a new political system that could respond to the nation’s needs. The citizen’s duties ended when they voted. The task of government formation and the reform of government systems began then. We must now turn our attention to new ways and build a democracy that uses modern technologies and processes to integrate the electorate into the ongoing work of government.
- consensus: an agreement to which all members of a group, after discussion, agree without reservation and also agree the understanding of the different components after discussion. The propositions is modified until that stage is reached.
- compromise: an agreement or decision, settled on by a group, after a discussion, in which agreement is reached on the wording but individuals may retain their own personal definitions in reserve.
- authority: the agreed or delegated right to exercise power on behalf of another (e.g., the electorate gives authority to the Dáil to elect a Taoiseach)
- power: the ability to do something (e.g., the Taoiseach appoints as Ministers those who have demonstrated that they have the power to act)