Partisan gridlock? Not in Ireland

The drawn-out wrangling over the 'fiscal cliff' in Washington couldn’t have happened in Ireland. Getting a bill passed in Europe is a straightforward exercise for one simple reason: parliamentary democracy. But caution: Such a system also helped cause Europe's debt woes.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/file
Speaker of the House John Boehner walks past reporters on Jan. 1, the day the House passed a 'fiscal-cliff' deal. Op-ed contributor Steve Coronella writes: 'Stalemate is not an attractive spectacle. But it does require that Congress and the president negotiate,' unlike Europe, 'whose lawmakers simply rubber-stamped bad policies over the last decade.'

It’s funny how two democratic regions of the world – Europe and the United States – can have such different systems of government, and yet both end up in a muddle of deficits and debt.

Case in point: The drawn-out wrangling over the “fiscal cliff” in Washington couldn’t have happened in Dublin, or indeed in any other European capital.

This isn’t because national lawmakers on this side of the water are any wiser or more considerate of the big picture than their US counterparts. Indeed, the opposite might be true, given the continent’s prolonged fiscal mess.

But getting a bill passed in this part of the world remains a more straightforward exercise, for one simple reason. Parliamentary democracy – the preferred form of government in the European Union – guarantees a loyal legislative majority, something President Obama or House Speaker John Boehner can only dream of.

In such a system, the executive derives its power from the parliament, which is chosen by the people. The executive and parliament work together as either a majority party or in a governing coalition, until voters decide to support the opposition in sufficient numbers in the next parliamentary election.

To see how this works in comparison to America, let’s take the situation here in Ireland, where patchwork compromise of the US variety is wholly unnecessary because the present coalition between the Fine Gael and Labour parties enjoys a near 50-seat majority in the Dail, or lower house of parliament.

As a result of this iron grip on power, the Irish government can do pretty much as it pleases. Unlike in the US, the legislative process moves swiftly. Irish cabinet ministers identify problems (the most troublesome at the moment being in health and education), come up with intended solutions, and then look for approval – which is almost always granted – from their cabinet colleagues.

Once a proposal passes through the cabinet, a bill is drafted and it arrives on the house floor for a vote – where again it will meet with only token resistance.

It’s all basically a no-fuss approach – although as any observer of the British House of Commons or the Irish Dail can attest, opposition lawmakers often harangue government ministers when they are at last given the courtesy of hearing what has been decided without an iota of their input.

To an ex-pat American accustomed to perpetual partisan fighting in Washington, the streamlined parliamentary system can seem an admirably decisive way to run a country. 

But wait: Isn’t this what got Ireland into fiscal trouble in the first place, a succession of largely uncontested legislative initiatives under previous Fianna Fail governments that helped set the stage for the meltdown of the Celtic Tiger economy beginning in 2008?

And can’t the same be said for many other European countries – such as Greece, Spain, and Italy – whose lawmakers simply rubber-stamped bad policies over the last decade?

So even as Congress endures another episode of short-term politics, US voters might heed a lesson from the Emerald Isle and other European democracies where legislative consent is rarely in doubt.

Stalemate is not an attractive spectacle. But it does require that Congress and the president negotiate. And as the Founders intended, it just might prevent each side from doing something the country will come to regret.

Steve Coronella has lived in Ireland since 1992. He is the author of “This Thought’s On Me: A Boston Guy Reflects on Leaving the Hub, Becoming a Dub & Other Topics.” He can be reached at

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