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Promises of political reform come under intense scrutiny in Ireland

Amid public disenchantment, a group of Irish political scientists plans to hold political parties to their promises of reform. The new government will need to rescue the economy, and also the foundations of democracy.

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Politicians in financially-stricken Ireland vowed on Monday to change how the country is governed and revamp the constitution in the run-up to the general election at the end of February.

Unable to make far-reaching economic commitments thanks to the terms of an 85-billion-euro ($115 billion) IMF/EU bailout agreed late last year, candidates are instead trying to tap into frustrations over how the country is run.

A new political science initiative is planning to follow their every move.

The website Reformcard.com was launched on Sunday aimed at tracking and rating promises of reform made by all the main parties in their election manifestos and then follow the implementation of these promises once the parties are in government.

Public participation in reform debate

The project was conceived by two researchers at the Irish Institute for European Affairs, Johnny Ryan and Joseph Curtin. The idea began with a suggestion from Curtin that the monitoring and tracking tools he used in his work with the OECD, monitoring the progress of countries towards reaching their climate change reduction targets, could be used to track political promises in the run-up to the general election.

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"My contribution was to suggest that there should be a second stage, a more participative stage where internet users online would contribute not only their own preferences for which reforms were most important, but also would be gathering data for us so we could monitor how well government was implementing its reform promises," said Ryan.

Members of the public will play a key role in keeping track of party actions at a local level, and indicating which reform proposals they feel are most useful and relevant to their lives.

Together with the Irish Political Science academics who make up the PoliticalReform.ie group, the project aims to rate all proposals for reform on a scale of one to a hundred and are evaluated under five key headings including how laws are made, how public representatives are elected, transparency, local government and public service.

Each heading has five individual aspects under which reforms in that area will be evaluated. Each party will be scored on all 25 aspects of political reform, and will be graded out of a maximum of 100 for the effectiveness of their proposals.

"Each party has policies for political reform, but the value and impact of proposed reforms requires analysis," said Curtin. "To examine each manifesto and assess parties' reform policies is a mammoth task for even the most enthusiastic voter. Reformcard does the job for us."

Voters disillusioned with political establishment

Irish voters want an end to the crony culture that helped precipitate the economic crash. But political reform lags behind issues such as jobs and the economy. Last week an opinion poll cited just 6 percent of voters feeling political reform as the most important election issue.

"People know that there's an economic crisis and they know there's a banking crisis. I think what we also have to pay attention to is that there's also a democratic crisis," assistant editor of the Irish Times newspaper, Fintan O'Toole said.

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"Having a general election is almost marginal in terms of its real effect on people's lives and when you're in a situation where you can say that, that's a very, very serious thing to be able to say in a modern western European democracy."

O'Toole adds that the Irish political system and political culture has failed catastrophically; failing to create a more equitable society during the boom times. He feels it is now obvious that the existing political institutions will not be able to do this during difficult times; particularly while bound by the terms of the EU/IMF bailout deal.

"The key thing is that if you want to revolutionise your democracy, you do it democratically," he said. "The big problem in Ireland is that there's been this huge divorce between the people in general and the political culture, the political institutions. You need to start by giving power back to the people."

Embracing the rhetoric of reform

Almost all Irish politicians have been speaking the language of change in recent months, but the most detailed reform proposals have come from the two political parties who, in coalition with each other or otherwise, are the most likely to play a role in the formation of the country's next government.

The party likely to be dominant in the next Parliament is Fine Gael, a center-right party with largely conservative social and economic policies in the vein of the Christian Democratic parties of mainland Europe. The other is the Labour Party; socially liberal and economically on the left, the party is often viewed as being in thrall to the trade union movement.

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Both parties propose abolishing the upper house of the Irish Parliament, the Senate, and changing the rules governing donations to political parties. Both propose more effective local government with a focus on financial efficiency, local decision making and transparency in the making of those decisions.

They also favor redrafting the Irish constitution and increasing the powers for oversight of the executive and the initiation of legislation for the lower house of the parliament, making it a more effective check on the power of the government of the day, no matter which party is in power at the time.

Structural problems at the heart of failures

Regardless of which specific policy proposals make their way into the manifestos of the individual parties over the days and weeks prior to the election, there is no doubt that, barring hugely unexpected electoral developments, the two dominant parties in the next parliament will have made a commitment to real and lasting political and governmental change a key part of their policy platforms.

Time will tell if the movement for political reform has a lasting effect on Irish political culture, or if the rhetoric translates into effective action.

"I think our optimal outcome would be if different parties started to use this system to 'beat each other over the head with'" Johnny Ryan said. "The idea that there is a standard that your peers should hold you to account to is potentially a very powerful one."

Author: Colm Coyne in Dublin
Editor: Rob Turner

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