The Young Coveys – Youth Manifesto

The following speech was delivered yesterday at the Abbey Theatre. The occasion was a discussion on social and political reform on Ireland titled “Other Voices – The Young Coveys”, and was meant to supplement a later performance of Seán O’Casey’s “The Plough and the Stars”.

 

There can be no doubt to anyone living in Ireland today, that our institutions are fighting off attacks on all quarters, from an angry public demanding change, acerbic media criticism, populist politicians and economic turmoil. They are engaging in a struggle for their own survival, and in that process their flaws are exposed for all to see. If confidence is to be returned to the system, major reforms are necessary. These reforms should reflect the values held by the Irish people in the 21st century, with a view to how society should appear in the future.

First and foremost, we must affirm that Ireland is a tolerant and inclusive republic, where sovereignty lies firmly with the people. The state must affirm its duty to provide for the basic rights and expectations of its citizens, regardless of their background, race, culture, religion, or sexual orientation. Ireland’s political and legal system exists to defend the rights of its citizens, and no law may be passed which unduly infringes on these rights, notwithstanding the general will of the people.

Ireland must also protect the interests of its society as a whole, by ensuring that its political system operates in a transparent manner and gives each and every citizen a voice. All citizens have the right to know what decisions are being made in Government and on what basis, and the best way to ensure this is to strengthen the separation of powers.

Our Oireachtas must be independent of the Executive, and the committee system strengthened so that it can properly oversee the actions of Government. If any TD or Senator becomes a minister, he or she must resign his or her seat. This also ensures that ministers can devote their fullest attentions to the duties of their office.

The Judiciary must also be given the proper tools to investigate and prosecute corruption and abuse of power within state institutions. So far, where such despicable acts have been detected, they have been handled almost exclusively by Tribunals of Inquiry, and while this system has its merits, it does not have the power to deliver legally binding verdicts and punish criminals. This system should be replaced by an Inquisitorial Court, modelled on the French criminal justice system, where the examining Judge plays an active role in investigations – usually those involving serious and complex crimes.

There has been much disquiet in recent times about one of the most important units in our democracy, the political party. It goes, of course, without saying that political parties are a healthy part of any democracy, as they facilitate orderly discussion and cooperation on matters of common interest. Every citizen has the right to join a political party, and make their voice heard within that organisation. Yet it is in the interest of the common good, that all political parties operate in a transparent manner, and produce annual reports detailing their finances. For any party to accept a parliamentary or council seat, it must ensure that the majority of its fund-raising is derived from its membership, and not from outside donors. Anonymous donations must be prohibited, and a register of donors published on a yearly basis.

Lobbying, another practise tainted in recent times, is an equally natural and healthy function of democracy. It must, therefore be facilitated, however in a transparent manner. All lobbyists, and their interests, must be publicly registered to ensure that a level playing field exists. No citizen should find his access to representation compromised by the activities of a highly organised few.

It would be difficult to ignore the ongoing debate about media ownership in Ireland and in the wider world. The news-media performs a vital role in informing the public on issues that affect them, and in scrutinising the operations of Government. In this regard, it must be treated with the same level of importance as any branch of government, and its independence enshrined in law. No one individual or company must be permitted to dictate the news, and a legal mechanism is needed to protect the media from conflicts of interest.

Our legal system also requires substantial reform. It is extremely difficult for ordinary citizens who lack the requisite training, to inform themselves on the laws that regulate their everyday behaviour, without seeking independent legal advice. Our huge and complex body of statutes and amendments are to blame, and the only remedy is that the law be restated in code form. This is not to suggest that such reforms will make independent legal advice unnecessary, but that ordinary every day questions may be resolved by consulting a book, as one may consult a dictionary.

Our social welfare system is currently under considerable financial strain, and much reform is needed. It remains to be seen however, whether these reforms will be proactive or reactive in nature. Irish society is built on the fruit of its citizens’ labours, and the state has the responsibility ensure that every citizen can contribute to society as best he or she can. Welfare must empower those in need, and not result in dependency. Thus the focus of our welfare model must be changed from sustenance to services, providing a holistic approach to social problems. Even universal benefits should be integrated into public services in this manner. For example, child benefit might be integrated into education, by the provision of free school clothes, books, bags, transport and meals. Schools may be opened on weekend mornings for PE, and summer camps may be run during the holidays. Thus educating children could empower parents to pursue their careers.

In the reactive attempts to fix the financial crisis, the taxation system has been damaged rather than strengthened. The tax code should be be built in such a way so as to reflect a coherent philosophy, and this philosophy should remain stable regardless of the state of the economy. The Government should bear in mind the three main goals of any taxation code, as proposed by Reuven S. Avi-Yonah: (1) to raise revenue for government activities, (2) to mitigate unequal distributions of wealth in society, and (3) to regulate private economic activity, by encouraging and discouraging certain forms of behaviour. In the case of the latter especially, it is important that the goals remain consistent, and aren’t disregarded for the sake of earning extra revenue – as has all too often been done in recent years.

Indeed, taxation is an incredibly powerful tool, especially when it comes to the source of business profits. Enterprise and innovation are usually cited as the means by which Ireland’s economy shall recover. Indeed Ireland should foster an entrepreneurial spirit, and the private sector should not be overly burdened with regulation. However we must change our entire outlook towards business, if we are to avoid returning to a decade of greed and excess. Immoral behaviour must be made unprofitable through taxation, with businesses that engage in the most environmentally and community friendly practises benefiting from far lower corporate tax rates. Goods that are built to a high standard should also be subject to lower VAT rates. Thus morality could become a sound business strategy.

The state should play an important role in culture, while remaining at arms length from the artists themselves. It should seek to build an environment which is conducive to artistic development, by sponsoring grass-roots associations that assist developing writers, artists and musicians. State owned media organisations should engage with artists and showcase their works in an impartial manner. Whilst acknowledging the importance of the state’s direct role in promoting the Irish language, it should ensure that it operates with equal impartiality at all times.

The education system of the Irish republic is currently under a lot of strain, and questions remain as to whether it is capable of competing on an international level. Its goal should be to produce skilled, civic minded, culturally aware, inquisitive and free thinking citizens. Foreign languages must be prioritised at primary level, and philosophy introduced at second level. No school curriculum should seek to indoctrinate its pupils in any religious creed, but instead seek to develop an understanding of the nature of religious belief, and how it has affected the development of society from an objective perspective. The state should also make sure that pupils with learning disabilities and non-native English speakers have their needs fully catered for.

With regards to the Irish language in education, the state should firstly ensure that the curricula of English speaking schools remain relevant to the times, and fast-track the development of Gaelscoileanna and Gaelcoláistí. This would create a living environment for the language, vastly increasing the number of speakers in the country. Extra English classes should be provided for non-native speakers of English, to ensure that they are not disadvantaged.

Lastly, in building a republic of values, these values must remain consistent with our foreign relations. Just like the financial crisis threatens to undermine republican values in Ireland, the Eurocrisis threatens to undermine the values on which the EU was built, with financial woes undermining its institutions. Reform will be needed to stabilise the situation, but the exact nature of it remains a subject of speculation. In the mean time, Ireland’s commitment to the European Union must remain subject to the consent of the people of Ireland, and our republican values should be the basis on which we conduct negotiations on reform and integration. In championing the cause of a people’s Europe, Ireland’s voice should be heard loud and clear. Any further transfer of competencies must be met with further transparency and accountability.

It is hoped that all of the above proposals will allow society to prosper, economically, intellectually and culturally, while promoting a sense of national identity in an open and friendly manner. We must, first and foremost, foster a sense of republicanism that is inclusive, not exclusive in nature, and be unashamedly proud of our heritage.

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