Will Ireland’s crisis be wasted? Or is political change on the way?

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” Barack Obama’s chief of staff famously said. What new political groups are emerging from the ashes of the Celtic Tiger?

Rahm Emanuel, Barack Obama’s chief of staff, made the notorious comment as the new president laid out his plans for his administration.

Emanuel’s theory is simple. In a crisis, people react quickly. Things that otherwise take months or years are achieved in weeks.

There’s general agreement that Ireland needs fixing. But who is taking advantage of the Irish crisis to push through reforms?

Last night, RTÉ’s Prime Time devoted most of its available airtime to discussion of the crisis the state now faces.

There were no politicians on the panel, made up of two journalists (Margaret E Ward and Eamon Dunphy), a historian, (Dermot Ferriter), a political analyst (Elaine Byrne), and a businessman (Padraig Ó Ceidigh).

Well, I tell a lie. There was one politician, Democratic congressman Richard Neal. But he’s American, so he doesn’t really count.

The panel pretty much agreed that the blame for the current crisis lay in an unholy alliance of bankers, politicians and developers. Dunphy called for explanations and answers, saying “The future will be bleak if we don’t account for what happened.”

Margaret E Ward spoke about how her grandmother and mother had both emigrated to the USA and returned, and now another generation faced the same (non-)choice. She spoke of the need for a revolutionary vision, concluding “It’s time to stop talking about it and just do it.”

Elaine Byrne, who is involved with PoliticalReform.ie, spoke about the recent Citizens’ Assembly, and said “Every source of traditional authority… has been stripped away” in Ireland. She ended by quoting Henry Grattan.

Ó Ceidigh said it was almost impossible to run a business in Ireland at the moment, because banks would not lend. and he should know. His company, Aer Arann, recently emerged from examinership brought on by cashflow problems. He spoke of a collapse in banking and political systems, and said the public service was not equipped to deal with 21st century problems. “We’ve got to reinvent ourselves and reinvent our country,” he concluded.

Ferriter looked beyond our shores. The problem Ireland faced was not just an Irish problem, but a European problem, he argued. And a European crisis required European solutions. The American politician said Irish-Americans still love Ireland, and everyone smiled politely.


Lots of talk then, but who’s out there taking advantage of the crisis? Well, Elaine Byrne is involved with PoliticalReform.ie, a web forum of political scientists, along the same lines as the Irish Economy blog brings together economists. The site promotes discussion of constitutional and political reforms needed in Ireland.

Meanwhile, Fintan O’Toole had move away from the safety of his Irish Times column, addressing a mass rally last Saturday, and promoting a petition on his website calling for a ten point plan.

On the other side of the political spectrum, O’Toole’s former Times colleague, Marc Coleman, is involved with the National Forum (formerly, and very briefly, the National Alliance) which Newswhip reported on recently.

Elsewhere on Newswhip today, you can read the thoughts of another movement, Second Republic, again calling for political and constitutional change.

List systems in place of the single transferable vote to elect TDs, a reduction in the number of TDs (and how much they’re paid), abolishing the Seanad, more people power, and improved freedom of information are all common themes of these and other groups springing up around the country.

A single belief emerges unites all these movements. “Politics as usual” isn’t working. Come the general election, Ireland needs not just a change of government, but a change in how we govern ourselves.

And perhaps the greatest sign of disillusion with “politics as usual” is that the one of the first people to propose a programme of widespread radical reform is rarely to be seen. Remember Enda Kenny and his plan for a Constitution Day to overhaul the Irish constitution, Bunreacht na hÉireann? That was only eight months ago, and is now all but forgotten as Fine Gael, perhaps the only party with a nationwide organisation capable of taking advantage of the hunger for change, finds itself in the doldrums in the polls.

Do you know of other movements emerging out of the crisis? Is there a grassroots group working in your area?