Power to the People? Assessing Democracy in Ireland

Power to the People? Assessing Democracy in Ireland - Dr Ian Hughes, Paula Clancy, Clodagh Harris, David Beetham

For the first time ever a comprehensive audit of the state of democracy in modern Ireland has been undertaken. The overview assessed Ireland's performance in areas ranging from citizenship, law and human rights to representative and accountable government and from civil  society and popular participation to democracy beyond the state. The audit will allow reforms to be measured over time and will also enable international comparisons according to one of the authors, Dr Clodagh Harris of the Department of Government.

The audit, Power to the People? Assessing Democracy in Ireland, was published by TASC - the Think Tank for Social Change. It used international indicators and models of good practice to measure Irish performance and the authors concluded that while there are a number of areas where Ireland is doing well, many more areas are in either 'in flux' or doing badly.

Areas that were commended were the high levels of stated public commitment to democratic values, a largely free, fair and representative electoral system, a high level of press freedom, an inclusive system of social partnership and a strong system for the protection of civil and political rights. However the report also highlighted the many paradoxes of Irish society, which it listed as:

Despite the decline in overall levels of serious crime in Ireland in recent years, women are systematically disadvantaged in accessing justice under the present criminal justice and penal systems. The prevalence of violence against women and girls, the low prosecution and conviction rates of perpetrators, the high complaint withdrawal rates and inadequate funding for victim support services are a major source of concern. At present Ireland is bottom of a league of twenty European countries in the rate of prosecution for the crime of rape.

  • Ireland is now one of the wealthiest societies in the world – ranked fourth in the 2006 UNDP survey - and also one of the most unequal, with significantly higher than average poverty rates across the EU 25. While investment in a range of public services has increased considerably, public spending has declined as a percentage of GDP and Ireland's spending on social protection is low by European standards.

  • Ireland has introduced a substantial body of equality legislation over the last 10 years, yet more than one in ten of the population reports discrimination. Travellers endure racism on a daily basis in Ireland and, despite decades of campaigning for change, anti-discrimination legislation and government initiatives, the Traveller community remains one of the most marginalized groups within Irish society.

  • Prisons are populated mostly by young male offenders from disadvantaged areas, imprisoned for relatively minor offences, who are  inadequately supported through rehabilitation and hence show a high rate of recidivism. Prison conditions are poor and appear to be worsening over time. Public opinion polls indicate that people believe offenders are treated too leniently. At the same time, relatively high minorities in the population, particularly among the most educated, demonstrate an ambivalence towards the law vis à vis so-called 'victimless' offences, such as income tax evasion or false claiming of benefits.

  • The non-partisan Irish civil service displays an independence that is reinforced by its autonomous recruitment process. Meanwhile, the  past decade or so has seen an expanding number of independent regulatory bodies and the introduction of codes of conduct designed to ensure the greater accountability and impartiality of the public service. However, their reach is incomplete and their operation inconsistent.

  • The proportion of women in public life remains low. Women are notably underrepresented in political life. The persistence of this low representation in public life is despite the commitment shown by women to the public sphere. Women are more likely than men to be 'community activists', and as equally involved as men in 'political activism'. Emily O'Reilly, Ombudsman and Information Commissioner launched the audit and noted that it 'offers a snapshot of the state of our democracy at a particular critical point in time. After more than 15  years of unparalleled economic growth, we are given a chance to take a breath, and, as the conclusion states, debate and discuss the direction in which our country is moving and identify the key points where the ongoing reform of public life needs strengthening'

The audit used a methodology developed by Professors David Beetham and Stuart Weir of the Universities of Leeds and Essex respectively. The audit framework comprised 70 areas of investigation across 14 separate sections. The different sections were interrelated as well as being treated discretely, reflecting the necessary integration of democracy. Thus governmental accountability depends on the independence of the courts, on the media, on popular participation and so forth and not just on the integrity of office holders or the rules governing their performance in office.

The authors of the audit include Dr Ian Hughes, and Paula Clancy from TASC and Dr Clodagh Harris from UCC.

Dr Clodagh Harris is a lecturer with the Department of Government, at UCC. Her research interests include active citizenship and democratic participation. She managed the Democracy Commission Project (2004-2005) and edited the Commission's final report 'Engaging citizens', published in 2005.

Dr Hughes has worked as a research scientist, as a lecturer in physics and science communication and in academic management. He was a Senior Researchers with TASC on the Democratic Audit Ireland project. He co authored Public Perspectives on Democracy published in 2005.

Paula Clancy is the Director of TASC - a think tank for action on social change and Director of the Democratic Audit Ireland project. Her publications cover areas from the media and politics to community art and gender

Professor David Beetham is Professor Emeritus,  University of Leeds, Fellow of the Human Rights Centre, University of Essex and Associate Director of the UK Democratic Audit. The Democratic Audit framework which he pioneered has been used in many countries around the world.

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