How effectively does Ireland’s government develop strategic policy solutions and foster dialogue in the process?
The Management Index assesses a country’s capacity for reform. Three categories examine the ability to plan and implement policies. Accountability assesses the extent to which non-executive actors are included in the political process.
In the past, the government was guided on key economic and social issues by (1) five-year “national development plans” and (2) shorter-term “national understandings,” which evolved out of national wage agreements but which expanded to include statements of principle on a very wide range of social and economic issues. There has also been a proliferation of planning units in the ministries and personal advisory cabinets for ministers. Expenditure on this type of advice has ballooned in recent years.
However, since 2008, government decision-making has been dominated by short-term crisis management. Keeping the Irish banking system afloat amid the global financial crisis of September 2008 has been the dominant concern, followed closely by attempts to limit the growth of the fiscal deficit. This has left little room for longer-term strategic planning, although a report outlining ideas about a “smart economy” was published in 2009 (see also Research and Innovation Policy).
In the wake of the crisis, the government recruited advisers from academia to assist in the formation of an anti-crisis plan. These advisers have had significant influence on policy.
In response to the urgent need to reduce day-to-day spending by a significant percentage, the government commissioned an outsider from academia to chair the Special Group on Public Sector Numbers and Expenditure Programs (better known as An Bord Snip Nua, which in a mixture of Gaelic and English roughly means the “New Cuts Board,” referring to a predecessor board known by a similar name in the 1980s). In July 2009, this group delivered a set of proposals to reduce public spending by identifying over €5 billion in potential savings. These recommendations had some influence on the changes to current spending contained in the 2010 budget, and will continue to influence policy going forward.
In planning Ireland’s response to climate change, there has also been a reliance on planning units and external advisers. There is no empirical data detailing how frequently ministers or the head of government meet with strategic staff, but regular meetings do occur.
Members of the Irish academic community, and especially the economists, feel that they have been neglected or not sufficiently consulted during the current crisis. Of course, they have been free to offer their advice through journalism and on blog sites (such as http://www.irisheconomy.ie/ and http://www.politics.ie/). The views expressed in these outlets do influence policymakers, although to what extent is difficult to gauge.
Academics were appointed over the past two years in the Department of the Taoiseach (the prime minister’s office) and the Department of Finance. In 2009, an academic was appointed governor of the cCentral bBank, breaking with the long-established tradition that the retiring permanent secretary of the Department of Finance would succeed to the governorship. These advisers appear to be influential, and appear to meet regularly with their ministers, but no empirical evidence is available on the frequency of these meetings, or more importantly, on the impact of the advice proffered on policy-making.
http://www.irisheconomy.ie/ and http://www.politics.ie/
The prime minister’s office (PMO) is known in Ireland as the Department of the Taoiseach. It is relatively large (employing over 300 people). Its sections include Economic Policy, Social Policy, Social Partnership, Public Services Modernization, and European and International Affairs. These sections “shadow” or monitor the work of the line departments – Finance, Social Welfare, Health, Education and so on. Considerable energy is devoted to turf wars and bureaucratic infighting as well as to genuine evaluation and monitoring of proposed legislation. The effectiveness of the prime minister’s office in improving the decision-making in line departments is difficult to assess.
The ability of the PMO to alter the views taken by the line ministries is crucially dependent on the analytical skills of its staff. In a public service that is short on analytical skills and training, the PMO is not preeminent, a fact that weakens its influence.
The Department of the Taoiseach reviews draft memoranda designated for discussion by the cabinet. Its views are taken into account when these memoranda are revised. The Taoiseach’s office does exercise tight control over the government agenda. In practice, the Taoiseach’s office has agenda control.
It follows from the previous two sections (i.e., GO Expertise and GO Gatekeeping) that the PMO has to be involved in legislative and expenditure proposals. The process is a highly interactive one, with much feedback between the line ministries, the PMO, and the Office of the Attorney General. The Department of Finance has considerable input into all proposals with revenue or expenditure implications. Any significant policy items have to be discussed in advance with the Department of the Taoiseach.
Ireland does not have a well developed or highly institutionalized system of cabinet committees. To the extent that they are used, this takes place on an ad hoc basis.
However, Oireachtas (parliamentary) committees play an increasingly important role in parliamentary business. They can receive submissions and hear evidence from interested parties or groups, discuss and draft proposals for legislative change, print and publish minutes of evidence and related documents, and require attendance by ministers to discuss current policies and proposals for legislation.
The material discussed at cabinet meetings is thoroughly prepared by ministry officials. The culture of communication between senior civil servants and ministers has not changed in any notable manner over the past two years.
The nature of Irish coalition governments makes it very likely that policy proposals are effectively coordinated by informal mechanism before they come to cabinet for decision. The impression conveyed by accounts of cabinet meetings is that the debates and discussions are not very fundamental or profound. The agenda is usually too heavy to allow long debates on fundamental issues, which tend to have been settled in various ways prior to the cabinet meeting. Whether this makes for an effective and democratic decision-making process is unclear, but the informal coordination mechanisms do work effectively.
Regulatory impact analysis (RIA) is used by all government departments and offices. It applies to:
• proposals for primary legislation involving changes to the regulatory framework;
• significant statutory instruments;
• proposals for EU directives and significant EU regulations when they are
published by the European Commission; and
• proposals for legislation by policy review groups.
Prior to the discussion of legislative proposals by cabinet committees, RIAs are prepared by departments for consideration by relevant senior officials.
An independent review of the operation of RIAs was completed in 2008 and published as “Regulatory Impact Analysis: An Operational Review by the Department of the Taoiseach (Prime Minister’s Office).” The review indicated that good progress had been made in relation to the implementation of regulatory impact analysis across departments. It made a range of recommendations in relation to how the RIA model could be amended and improved.
A new set of guidelines drawing on the experience of the RIA pilot process was published in June 2009. This document listed 45 RIAs that had been published since 2006. However, the range of topics covered is not wide, and many important topics are not included. The new guidelines pointed to the need for a more detailed consideration of methodological issues, particularly where qualitative data is involved, as well as the importance of including advice on public service implementation and administrative costs. It is claimed that all these issues have now been addressed in the process.
Despite this apparently high level of commitment to appraisals and assessments, it is far from clear that the process works to ensure meaningful analysis of major legislation. Analytical skills have not been built up within ministries over the years. There is excessive reliance on external consultants for project appraisal and impact analysis.
The2008 Review of RIAs is available at:
The Revised Guidelines for RIAs published in June 2009 are available at:
Many of the recent examples of RIA fail to address major issues or areas in an analytical manner. Even when they follow the standard guidelines, assessments are not always sufficiently analytical to be given a high score under this heading.
Following standard guidelines, RIAs are required to analyze alternative options (including “do nothing”) and quantify the costs and benefits of the different alternatives. It is not always clear how profound the analysis underlying these exercises is.
This is an area where there was a seismic change in 2009. The orthodox view – shared by trade unionists, employer organizations and politicians – was that the Irish model of “social partnership” played a major part in the transformation of the Irish economy from the crises of the 1980s into the “Celtic Tiger” of the 1990s. This model borrowed heavily from the Nordic and Austrian examples. It contrasted with the more confrontational model adopted in Britain by Margaret Thatcher over these years. There have been seven agreements or programs, running from 1987 to the most recent one, concluded in 2006 to cover a period lasting until 2016, called Towards 2016. (The significance of the name lies in the fact that 2016 will mark the centenary of the 1916 rising that eventually led to an independent Irish state in 1922.)
Central to all of these agreements was a national wage agreement that established an agreed rate of growth in private and public sector pay over the period. This was embedded in a socioeconomic policy framework that became increasingly inclusive over the course of successive agreements. The areas covered included housing, social welfare policy, employment and labor market policy, social inclusion and so on. Prior to each national agreement, a strategy document was developed by the National Economic Social Council (NESC). Critics complained that major areas of policy-making were being transferred away from the democratic parliamentary process into deals between “social partners” that lacked direct mandates from the electorate.
During 2009, the model was used to try to respond to the economic and fiscal crisis, but proved incapable of delivering the radical adjustments required. The pay agreement in the Towards 2016 program ran only for an initial 27-month phase. As its expiration approached in the second half of 2009, talks aimed at its renewal and extension were dominated by the problems created by the growing fiscal deficit and soaring unemployment. An increasingly bitter dispute also raged over whether public-sector employees should receive awards that had been negotiated in much more favorable conditions. The debate focused on the disparity between rising pay rates and security of employment in the public sector relative to pay cuts and increased job insecurity in the private sector.
The pay talks effectively collapsed at the end of 2009, when the government imposed income cuts of between 5% and 8% for about 315,000 public servants in the 2010 budget. This followed the earlier imposition of a 5% levy on public-sector incomes, described as a levy to help fund the generous defined benefit pensions enjoyed by public-sector workers. Belated attempts by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) Public Service Committee to rescue the deal by offering efficiencies and flexibility in public-service work practices, combined with a complicated proposal for 12 days unpaid leave to be taken by all public servants during 2010, failed to secure either political or public support, and did not prevent the income reductions.
At the end of December 2009, the Irish Business and Employers Confederation (IBEC), the main employers’ organization, having failed to agree a separate pay deal for the private sector in negotiations with the ICTU, formally withdrew from the terms of the transition agreement. Explaining its action, the group stated: “We are entering a period of enterprise-level bargaining in unionized employments.” That is, centralized pay bargaining was being abandoned, and 23 years of social partnership was coming to an end.
It can still be said that the government consults with the economic and social actors on a wide range of issues, but the process has become very unstable, and its benefits are now much less evident than was the case in the past.
Ireland’s constitution has an explicit clause (Article 28.4.2) that requires the government to act in a collective fashion, and requires all ministers to be collectively responsible for government decisions. This doctrine of collective cabinet responsibility is normally adhered to and is a clear incentive to produce a closely coordinated communications strategy.
The communication of policy decisions certainly receives careful attention. The government is very conscious of the importance of public relations and considerable sums of money are spent on consultants who try to ensure the best possible spin is put on decisions. Contradictory statements do not appear to have been a problem in recent years.
The Irish government has failed to realize its major policy objectives. Following the general election of April 2007, a new government was formed with 89 supporters from the three coalition parties and independents, giving a majority of 13 out of 165 voting members of parliament. The new government adopted a program for 2007 – 2012, setting out a blueprint of the targets and objectives policymakers wished to achieve over the course of their term. This program placed particular emphasis on rolling out infrastructure nationwide, combating climate change, and delivering a fully modern, patient-centered health service. The document is 87 pages long and contains quite detailed targets under 30 separate headings, ranging from broad macroeconomic objectives to areas such as civic life, the arts and the Irish language.
Over the three years that have passed since this program was adopted, circumstances have made it increasingly difficult to deliver on the blueprint’s main objectives. The optimistic economic assumptions that were assumed in the program became irrelevant almost overnight.
The program set the following broad macroeconomic targets or assumptions (it was not always clear which) for the five-year life of the government:
• maintenance of an average growth rate of 4.5%;
• creation of 250,000 net additional jobs; and
• keeping the government’s budget broadly in balance.
The reality has been horribly different: The economy has shrunk by over 12% since the program was published, the level of employment has fallen by 262,000 (or 12.5%), and the budget deficit has reached 12% of GDP.
The parties participating in the governing coalition have different agendas and priorities. The allocation of ministries between these parties has a significant influence on the coherence of policies in various areas. Under the Irish system, individual ministries (departments) are to a significant degree independent fiefdoms that can be used by individual ministers to pursue their self interests, chief among which is boosting their chances of reelection, as distinct from any comprehensive government objective. The system also requires even senior ministers to spend considerable energy and time in local constituency work, because few are sufficiently free of the risk of losing their seat at the next election.
An example of conflict between ministerial objectives and government policy is the current controversy between the minister for the environment and the Dublin City Council regarding the construction of an incinerator in the minister’s electoral district. The proposed facility has received approval from the cabinet, the relevant planning authorities and the Environmental Protection Agency, but the minister continues to conduct a high-profile campaign against it. Failure to build the incinerator on the specified scale could result in Ireland failing to meet the EU’s landfill directive, with the subsequent imposition of large fines.
Individual ministries are constrained by the relevant policies included in the government’s program. The two ministries with overarching responsibility for coordinating this program are the Department of Finance and the Department of the Taoiseach. The taoiseach can use party mechanisms to control the ministers from his own party, and also exercises some control over ministers from the coalition parties. But he cannot choose civil servants in any ministry to help him implement governmental goals against ministerial self-interest. At the higher levels of the civil service, appointment is now in the hands of an independent commission. Ministers are also free to select their own advisors and consultants without interference from the taoiseach or cabinet, and these outside advisors exercise considerable influence. For the most part, however, individual ministers do implement government policy. If they do not, the taoiseach has full powers of dismissal.
The Department of the Taoiseach (the PMO) and the Ministry of Finance are tasked with monitoring line ministries. This seems to result in duplication of functions and expertise, with divisions in the PMO and the Ministry of Finance shadowing the line ministries. A crucial area here is the annual preparation of expenditure estimates, which involves individual ministries submitting preliminary estimates to Finance, followed by a battle for resources as Finance tries to reconcile the total with the global amount available for public spending. This is the stage in the budgetary process when monitoring of line ministries is most effective, and when spending has to be justified in terms of overall government priorities. The effectiveness of this monitoring is difficult to assess objectively. It is certainly far from perfect. It has not prevented massive cost overruns in many recent infrastructure projects, for example. It is also clear that forceful ministers are more successful than others in defending particular spending programs. Until 2007, the strong performance of the economy and the buoyancy of public finances hid structural weaknesses in this area. The Report of the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programs, published in 2009, identified potential expenditure savings of €5.3 billion per year, amounting to 9.3% of relevant expenditure, with associated reductions of over 17,300 in public service employment numbers . Much of these potential savings arise from the elimination of duplication and overlap in ministerial spending. If this figure is realistic, it implies that coordination and control of line ministries have been seriously deficient in recent years.
The Report of the Special Group on Public Services Numbers and Expenditure is available at:
By far the largest executive agency in the Irish system is the Health Services Executive (HSE). One of the rationales for establishing the HSE was to remove the public health system from political control or interference. For example, the location of hospitals and clinics should be decided according to medical criteria, and should not be subject to ministerial manipulation. The HSE is meant to have autonomy from the Department of Health, which now retains a relatively small staff to monitor policy. Nonetheless, the minister for health and children negotiates and accepts the health-care funding estimates for the government each year, and reports to the government and the Public Accounts Committee about how this money being managed throughout the year. The department works closely with the HSE on all these issues, but ultimately it is the department and the minister which reports to the Department of Finance.
In other areas, the autonomy of executive agencies has yielded mixed results, and the monitoring of these agencies is probably not sufficiently close to ensure that government policy is being implemented efficiently.
The Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General (OCAG) is responsible for auditing and reporting on the accounts of public bodies, ensuring that funds are applied for the purposes intended, and evaluating the effectiveness of operations. The latest Annual Report (for 2008, published in September 2009) contains 42 chapters and deals with the management of selected public sector programs, schemes and projects. In addition, the office has issued special reports. The reports of the OCAG are discussed by the Dáil (lower house) Public Accounts Committee.
Of particular relevance to the present item is a report by the OCAG on the state Training and Education Agency (FÁS) published in 2010. This highlighted serious shortcomings and inadequacies in the running of this agency, which is the second largest executive agency in the country.
The OCAG does not regularly monitor all executive agencies. It seems to select those where it knows or suspects that problems have arisen. Its mission statement says it “selects issues for examination which are important in the context of the management of public funds.”
In summary, a system of monitoring executive agencies is in place, but recent high-profile cases seem to show that this system all too often discovers failings and shortcomings after they have occurred.
In 2007 (the latest year for which data are available), subnational units of government raised only 45% of their current and capital revenue from their own resources. The remainder came as grants from the central government. The collapse of property construction and development activity has further weakened the finances of local authorities.
The weaknesses in this system were clearly evident during the extreme weather events of the winter of 2009, when – for example – the severe flooding in the major river catchment areas was blamed partly on the inadequate maintenance of these waterways, which is the responsibility of subnational government units. These organizations blame the inadequate provision of funding by the central government. Similarly, responsibility for the repair and maintenance of local roads is mainly the responsibility of county councils, but they are dependent on grants from the central government to pay for this activity, and the damage caused to these roads by the severe winter has not resulted in an adequate increase in the resources made available.
Ireland is a unitary state, without regional self-government or a significant degree of autonomous local self-government. Article 28a of the constitution simply states: “The state recognizes the role of local government in providing a forum for the democratic representation of local communities, in exercising and performing at local level powers and functions conferred by law and in promoting by its initiatives the interests of such communities.” There has been no significant development through legislation of autonomous local government over the life of the independent Irish state.
In keeping with its weak constitutional foundation, the role of subnational government is perceived as narrow and weak by the electorate. The main units of local government – the counties and county boroughs – are mostly small, and many have weak economic bases. (The smallest county has a population of less than 30,000 people.) Eight regional authorities have been formed, comprised of groupings of counties, and they coordinate some of the county/city and subcounty activities, and monitor the use of EU structural funds. However, these have had little impact on the functioning of local government or the perception of their role by the electorate. They have, however, led to some proliferation of quasi-autonomous non-governmental organizations (known locally as quangos).
Regions and counties play such a limited independent role in the provision of public goods that they are unable to attempt to attract business activity or population to any significant degree. They are reduced to lobbying national bodies, such as the Industrial Development Authority, to work on their behalf. The standard reaction to local difficulties is to seek additional support and subsidies from the central government.
In certain issue areas, the attainment of national (or, more usually now, EU) levels of public services is prescribed and monitored. This applies in particular to environmental matters such as the provision of safe drinking water, controlling air and water pollution, and so on.
In this area, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a central role. Within the EPA, the Office of Environmental Enforcement supervises the environmental protection activities of local authorities by auditing their performance, providing advice and guidance, and in some cases giving binding directions. It can assist the public in bringing prosecutions against local authorities found to be in breach of significant legislation. In other areas – the provision of social housing, maintenance of local roads, and other such issues – the attainment of national standards is largely constrained by the resources made available by the central government.
The key influence in this area is Ireland’s membership in the European Union and, in the financial area, of the euro zone. In the 37 years since Ireland became a member of the European Economic Community, the country has adapted institutions at all levels of government to allow effective functioning in Europe.
In the financial and monetary area, Ireland has adapted its bank supervisory and regulatory structures to comply with membership in the European System of Central Banks. The budgetary process reflects Ireland’s obligations under the Maastricht Treaty.
Ireland prides itself on its enthusiastic participation in international reform initiatives, especially with regard to social progress, human rights and environmental protection. In the environmental area, Ireland signed the Kyoto Protocol, and a report published in 2009 projects that Ireland is likely to meet its commitments under this protocol (in part because of the recession’s impact on economic activity).
In the area of overseas development assistance (ODA), Ireland has built on its historical tradition of missionary work, especially in Africa, to play an active role in international ODA policy initiatives. The Irish government is committed to meeting the United Nations ODA target of 0.7% of gross national income by 2012. It has set an interim target of 0.6% in 2010. The severe economic downturn and increased budgetary pressure has made this target more difficult to achieve. However, in the 2010 budget, a commitment was given to maintain ODA at 0.52% of GNP.
A former president of Ireland, Mary Robinson, who was the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights from 1997 to 2002, has done much to promote international reform initiatives and to encourage Ireland to play an active role in these initiatives.
Ireland was one of only three of the existing EU member states to open its labor market to immigrants from the ten new EU accession states in 2004. It has adapted its labor market and social welfare regulations to accommodate a very significant influx of population from these states over the past six years.
Relative to its population size, Ireland ranks eighth out of the 27 EU states in terms of asylum seeker applications from outside the EU, with Nigerians forming the largest single group. In 2009 the Irish authorities dealt with 4,790 applications for asylum, granting it to 1,465 people, or about one-third of the total.
There is no regular, systematic monitoring of the institutional arrangements of government. There were no relevant exercises during the period under review.
However, since the onset of the current crisis, the belief that government structures and the functioning of the parliament do not provide effective government has gained ground. There have been calls for a radical rethinking of some provisions in the constitution. Examples include a proposal to abolish the Seanad or upper house, to adopt some form of a list system in place of the present single transferable vote system (though this change is not likely to be implemented, not least since it would require a referendum to change the constitution), a reduction in the size of the national parliament, and greater scope to draft outside experts into the cabinet.
The portfolios of ministries are redesigned quite often, most recently in March 2010, but there seems to be little management logic to the changes that are made. Instead, they are designed primarily to deal with political exigencies, such as the need to placate coalition partners, to maintain a geographical spread of important posts and so on.
In recent years the government has not significantly enhanced its strategic capacity by restructuring its institutional arrangements. The recent (March 2010) reshuffle of ministries was criticized as a lost opportunity to draft talented and expert outsiders into government to help manage the current crisis. Instead, the focus was clearly on juggling existing ministries and ministers to dispel unrest among members of the coalition parties.
Little systematic information is available that would allow us to assess how well- or ill-informed the Irish electorate is about policy issues. The level of debate on the burning issues of the day, especially the economic and financial crisis facing the country, is fairly high. Technical issues concerning bank solvency, sovereign debt risk, fiscal policy and so on are now discussed in newspapers and on the airwaves in greater detail and with more sophistication than would have been imaginable a decade ago. Access to information is easier now than in the past, especially through the Internet and specialized discussion sites and blogs. There is, however, a widespread feeling of impotency and cynicism, a belief that the individual voter has little or no influence on outcomes, and a sense that no one is or will be answerable for the serious mistakes that were made in economic management and financial regulation during the economic boom.
The powers of individual committees depend on their orders of reference, which usually include the power to send for persons, papers and records; to require attendance by ministers in order discuss current policies and proposals for legislation; and to require the attendance of principal office holders in bodies that are funded by the state. In general, the committee system has gained in stature in recent years, but is still regarded as lacking sufficient resources. It has not changed the fundamental control of government over the legislation process.
The Oireachtas (parliament) very seldom makes any substantive changes to bills that have been approved by the cabinet. However, it formally has the power to ask for government documents.
In theory, the Oireachtas has the power to summon ministers for hearings. However, individual committees do not enjoy that right directly. It is restricted to the Dáil Committee on Procedures and Privileges, which is chaired by the chief whip of the government. Thus, in practice, the government controls who can be compelled to attend hearings.
There are also limitations on the issues ministers can be asked. Neither ministers nor civil servants can be asked about cabinet-level decision-making, apart from procedures and administrative issues.
Martin, Shane, 2010: The Committee System, in: Muiris MacCarthaigh and Maurice Manning (eds). The Irish Parliament. Dublin: Institute of Public Administration. Forthcoming.
The three main types of committees are standing committees, select committees, and joint committees (containing members drawn from both houses of parliament). There are now no fewer than 19 joint committees. Most select and joint committees mirror a ministerial department. However, there are exceptions. A single committee covers both the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism and the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. There are some cross-cutting committees, such as Economic Regulatory Affairs, that do not directly mirror a single department.
The Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General (OCAG) publishes annual reports and special reports that attract widespread coverage and attention. The office reports to the lower house of parliament in the form of audit certificates or reports which give an audit opinion on the accuracy of the financial statements or accounts, and through reports on the financial management of individual entities and other matters likely to be of concern to the parliament.
The OCAG attends meetings of the lower house’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) as a permanent witness. The results of the OCAG’s independent examinations are used for PAC enquiries. The committee’s effectiveness is enhanced by its having the OCAG’s reports as a starting point, and in turn the OCAG’s scrutiny gains significantly in impact and effectiveness because its reports are considered by and used as a basis for action by the PAC.
The PAC examines and reports to the lower house as a whole on its review of accounts audited by the OCAG. This process ensures that the parliament can rely on its own auditing processes and capacities.
The Office of the Ombudsman investigates complaints about the administrative actions of government departments, the Health Service Executive and local authorities. Ireland largely follows the Scandinavian ombudsman model. This presents the ombudsman, who acts in the public interest as part of an overall system of checks and balances, as representing and protecting the people from any excess or unfairness on the part of government.
Controversy has recently arisen concerning a report from the ombudsman’s office. This related to a relatively minor issue known as the “Lost at Sea” case, and dealt with a judgment on the administration of a program compensating fishermen whose boats are lost at sea. The ombudsman’s report on the program was published in December 2009, after the recommendations it contained were rejected by a government department. This was only the second time in the 25-year history of the office that its recommendations had been rejected. Since that time, the ombudsman has been invited to appear before the relevant parliamentary committee to explain her views on the matter.
The fact that this sort of conflict has arisen so rarely, and attracted such publicity, is evidence that the office operates effectively. In addition to the main Office of the Ombudsman, there are separate ombudsmen for the police force, financial services, children, insurance, the army, the press, and for pensions. These offices are effective in listening to the concerns of citizens who must deal with government agencies.
The Irish broadcast media sector is regulated by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI), which was established in October 2009 following the enactment of the Broadcasting Act 2009. The BAI took over the work previously undertaken by the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland and the Broadcasting Complaints Commission.
The BAI is charged with: “ensuring that the number and categories of broadcasting services made available in the state best serve the needs of the people, bearing in mind their languages and traditions and their religious, ethical and cultural diversity;
ensuring that the democratic values enshrined in the constitution, especially those relating to rightful liberty of expression, are upheld; (and) providing for open and pluralistic broadcasting services.”
Radio Telefis Éireann (RTÉ) operates the largest TV and radio stations. RTÉ is a state-owned public service broadcaster, and a nonprofit organization. It is financed by revenue from the mandatory TV license, as well as by advertising. It claims to be “Ireland’s cross-media leader, providing comprehensive and cost-effective free-to-air television, radio and online services, which are of the highest quality and are impartial, in accordance with RTÉ’s statutory obligations.”
Since 1988, RTÉ has faced competition from privately owned radio and television stations. RTÉ devotes a significant proportion of TV and radio air time to news and commentary on current affairs and political issues. It also undertakes original investigative journalism. In addition, the privately owned TV and radio stations have to devote specified proportions of airtime to current affairs and public service programs.
The main stations produce daily high-quality information programs analyzing government decisions and provide forums for in-depth analysis of current affairs, as well as outlets for public views and grievances. These programs have been influential in eliciting reactions and responses from politicians.
The main political parties produce detailed electoral programs. The opposition parties are facilitated in this process by access to the civil service for factual information and for some assistance in analyzing the cost of proposed policies.
The main parties do not differ radically in their overall approach to the major social and economic policy areas. There is a strong centrist tendency, but differences do exist between support for higher levels of public expenditure financed through higher tax rates on the one hand, and emphasis on curtailing public spending and relying on lower tax rates to stimulate enterprise and investment on the other.
Extremist or crank positions, or strong positions on local issues, have tended to become the prerogative of independent, nonparty, single-issue candidates, although the need for all elected politicians, including government ministers, to remain deeply involved in local politics can undermine the coherence of national policies.
In the light of the abrupt and largely unforeseen change in the country’s economic fortunes almost immediately after the 2007 general election, it is impossible to regard any of the parties’ pre-election proposals as “plausible.”
Apart from the impact of the economic crisis and associated volatility, which rendered most economic forecasts irrelevant, there is an inbuilt tendency for party policy proposals to underestimate costs and overestimate revenue buoyancy.
The main objectives proclaimed in the manifestos tend to agree on the goals of maintaining full employment, improving the provision of public and social services (especially health, education and policing), reducing the tax burden and making it more equitable, and so forth. There is often a lack of internal coherence between these goals and a tendency not to sufficiently recognize the financial constraints and the political difficulties of implementing programs.
A serious difficulty arises from the nature of preparing political programs in a small, open economy that is at the mercy of external forces. For example, during the 2007 electoral campaign, the two main opposition parties (Fine Gael and Labour) set out quite detailed cost estimates of their proposed policy measures. Unfortunately, like the government’s own projections, these estimates were based on what proved to be wildly optimistic budgetary scenarios.
The nature of party political rivalry makes it almost inevitable that parties will compete in bidding for voters’ support by making unrealistic promises in their manifestos. The Irish election campaigns are no worse in this regard than those of other countries. The quality of the debate that follows the launch of the manifestos, and the analytical skills of the media commentators in dissecting the policies proposed by the competing parties, is high. In this regard, the Irish system works reasonably well to minimize, but not eliminate, inconsistency and implausibility in policy proposals.
The main Irish interest associations are the trade unions and the employers’ and farmers’ associations. These have clear lobbying roles, and try to influence policy to the benefit of their members. They are also aware of the need to gain credibility in the public’s mind, and of the skepticism with which many of their proposals are received by the media. On the other hand, these associations are now well staffed by economists and other experts who conduct detailed background research and prepare careful – if selective – arguments in support of the policies they advocate. Some use is made of scholarly research, although usually on a selective basis or through specially commissioned studies. All the main associations make detailed submissions prior to the annual budgets. Among these submissions are typically many advocating tax breaks for particular sectors of the economy, or in the case of the drinks, tobacco and car industries, for example, arguments against increased taxation.
Many of these associations have played a constructive role in clarifying technical issues and the repercussions of proposed legislative or budgetary measures. However, they have also exerted considerable and successful pressure on governments in favor of particular policies that have not been in the national interest. In this context, the pressure exerted by the construction industry (broadly defined) has been notable. It played a role in skewing fiscal incentives during the bubble years to favor the construction industry. This accentuated the effects of the availability of cheap and easy credit on this sector. This lobbying played little attention to the broader repercussions of the policies that were advocated.
Noneconomic interest associations are more diverse than their economic counterparts. The range of competence and reasonableness they display in their policy proposals is uneven.
A large variety of special interest groups operate in Ireland. In the medical area, for example, there are a large number of groups advocating for the interests of those suffering from particular illnesses and disabilities. Naturally, they make demands for additional resources, for best-practice care and facilities, and so on, without taking into account the implications for the national finances of the totality of the measures being advocated.
Regional pressure groups (such as “Save the West”) are a perennial feature of the Irish political scene, and have influenced policy in areas ranging from international transportation policy (such as mandatory Shannon airport stopovers by international flights) to the decentralization of government employment. Regional associations have also been prominent in trying to influence medical service delivery planning, generally opposing centralization of services in favor of keeping small and less specialized facilities open throughout the country. This type of pressure is particularly effective at election time, when outgoing ministers are called upon to show that they have implemented or will implement policies that favor their own electoral constituencies.
Many environmental lobby groups are active, but their role has been increasingly “mainstreamed” by the growth of the wider environmental debate, the establishment of an Environmental Protection Agency (with an annual budget of €28 million) and other state-funded environmental agencies, and the presence of the Green Party as a member of the coalition government.
Governments in charge
SGI 2011 review period (May 2008 to April 2010) is outlined. Shown are: Prime minister or president, type of government, and ruling parties. Asterisks indicate national parliamentary or presidential elections.
Country scores and texts were produced by the country coordinator, based on comprehensive assessments by two country experts.
Prof. Nils C. Bandelow Technical University of Braunschweig
Prof. Brendan Walsh University College, Dublin
Dr. Paul Mitchell London School of Economics and Political Science