This week’s Broadsheet column was a defence of the oft criticisied Summer School season and an argument for more policy Irish think tanks, for for a Fianna Fáil aligned one in particular. Original column online here: Broadsheet.ie
At around 4.20pm on Friday last Dáil Éireann adjourned for the Summer recess. It is due to return at 2pm on Wednesday September 20th.
Cue the usual hollow complaints from the commentariat over TDs holidays and short Dáil sessions, with a few harrumphs from the Brussels side-line courtesy of Fine Gael MEP, Sean Kelly who tweeted that the EU parliament’s holiday will be 4 weeks shorter.
If this Dáil was actually processing legislation, especially the range of halfway decent Private Members Bills coming from backbenchers across the House, then there may be a basis for complaint. But, it isn’t.
To be fair, it is not as if TDs and Senators are about to head off to the Maldives or Marrakech. The Seanad is sitting this week, as are several Oireachtas committees, and they will take a shorter break than the Dáil and return earlier – and before you sigh that the committees don’t count, bear in mind that Sean Fleming’s Public Accounts Committee will be launching its report into the financial procedures at Garda College, Templemore at 2.00pm tomorrow.
However, the fact that the Dáil is taking a nine-week break, does not mean that political debate will be on hold for all that time.
The start of the summer recess also means the start of the political Summer School season. This week sees the MacGill Summer School in Donegal and it will be following a range of other summer schools, both large and small, including the Parnell Summer School in Rathdrum, Co Wicklow in mid-August which will look at contemporary criminal, policing, penal and judicial policy and the excellent Kennedy Summer School being held in New Ross in early September which will look at a range of issues including Brexit.
While it is easy to dismiss some aspects of these Summer Schools are just the same folks talking at each other in various locations over wines of varying qualities, they still have a positive input into our policy discourse. They allow more discussion on the broader themes and issues and encourage more focus on policy and less on process – something that bedevils political commentary and debate the other 40 odd weeks of the year – including by yours truly.
The Summer School season highlights the dearth of policy discussion the rest of the year around. I am often struck by how few serious policy fora and think tanks we have here. While there are some, and they produce very good policy policies and encourage new policy directions, they tend to be from just outside the centrist spectrum, at either end: from the Hibernian Forum on the centre-right to the trade union backed Nevin Economic Research Institute. That is not to say that there no centrist fora, there are, but they tend to be sectoral or focussed on Ireland’s relationship with the EU.
It is as if the centrist parties should just look to their own limited in-house research teams and the civil service. While Fine Gael does have its Collins Institute, a quick look at the latest news section on their website suggests that annual activity is more based on a lunar calendar than a Gregorian one. The three most recent news items there are from May 2017, July 2015 and December 2014.
There is room for a significant centrist policy (big hint to Fianna Fáil) think tank and there are a range of EU institutes and fora, not to mention expertise, with which it could partner and co-operate. There is also a major issue on the horizon which it can help address: Brexit.
As I have said here several times, a lot of the discussion and focus in the Irish Brexit debate thus far has been on ameliorating and easing the most damaging economic aspects of Brexit, but there has not been sufficient discussion and exploration of the political dimensions.
One of those relates to the future of this island: as a whole.
One of the core principles of the Good Friday Agreement – and one of the primary reasons why it received huge buy-in across the island – was that the constitutional position of Northern Ireland would not change without the consent of the majority in Northern Ireland.
This was there to reassure Unionists that they would never be coerced into a United Ireland. It was also an assurance to the population that they were democratically sovereign and they alone could determine their own constitutional status. Yet, the Brexit result last year is about to change the status of the citizens of Northern Ireland not only without their consent, but expressly contrary to it and they are told, by the UK’s Supreme Court that the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement do not apply.
This is a major change and it is getting lost in the understandably loud and noisy debate over the economic aspects of Brexit.
Brexit also changes our relationship with the EU. Up to now we have been one of two common law, English speaking countries in the EU with similarly structured economies and political systems. We have shared common interests and held a range of similar views on issues from Data Protection to Employment and Social Policy. We now face into a future in the EU Council without a key ally.
That does not mean a debate on our continued EU membership – but it does require some thinking on how we develop and advance that membership and that again returns to how that is expressed on and across this island.
There is plenty to think about over the coming weeks and months and while it is good to take some time away and recharge, let’s also us some of the time while the Dáil is not in session to commence some serious debates on what lies before us.