The state of our democracy is rarely a focus for public debate. ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ is the order of the day. Yet our democracy sorely needs some attention. The challenge to reinvent our democracy was the focus for debate at Claiming our Future’s most recent deliberative event.
Our institutions, as they currently operate, do not appear to be capable of imagining and developing the new models of governance, economic strategy, or social relations that might promise a more equal, sustainable and participative society. It seems they cannot look beyond recreating the – troubled - past.
Political failure and the inadequacy of our democratic institutions contributed aggressively to our economic crisis. It was political decisions that unleashed the banks from adequate regulatory control, gave the tax breaks and incentives that enriched the developers, and allowed dominance to the ‘market’.
The same institutions and processes do not now appear able to escape the limits of their lack of competence, their relationship with the economic elite, and their horror of equality and environmental sustainability. A political fatigue has settled down in the absence of real alternatives.
The Claiming our Future debates prioritised a reinvention of our democracy from the local level. A broader range of powers needs to be devolved to the local level. Local authorities need to be able to raise their own finance. These issues of subsidiarity were identified as a priority for campaigns.
There was strong support for developing more participative forms of governance and decision-making at local level. The issues of distance from decision-making and powerlessness were identified as a key source of discontent.
Change in our democracy at national level was also identified as a necessary focus in future campaigns. The need for a Dáil that might be fit for purpose was prioritised. The power of the whip system needs to be reduced. Greater powers should be afforded to Oireachtas committees. The electoral system needs reform if we are to get politicians with a capacity to grapple with the crises we face and if we are to get a diversity of representation that reflects the actual composition of our society.
The danger to democracy in the silencing of voices of dissent was highlighted. There was strong support for a Constitutional provision to protect advocacy by community groups representing those living in poverty and inequality.
Equality was noted as a key value to shape democracy. It is potentially a shared value. Accountability was identified as another such value.
It is noteworthy that democratic change at the level of the European Union was not accorded a priority in the debates. A number of proposals was put to the event but did not achieve the same level of interest or support as action for change at the local and national levels. This is challenging in a context of the ever-increasing importance of Europe in our affairs.
Two specific events were identified as offering a focus for the ongoing work of Claiming our Future on these issues. The first is the promised Constitutional Convention. There was a suggestion for Claiming our Future to organise some form of alternative Constitutional Convention – an alternative where the voices of those experiencing inequality and poverty would have influence and where the agenda would be sufficiently broad to contribute to a real reinvention of our democracy.
The 1916 centenary offers a moment for examining the issue of our democracy. A real republic would be governed by different values and would require new political processes.
The Claiming our Future debates have set a compelling agenda for what might be required such a real republic.