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Ireland needs a dose of ‘Protestant pragmatism’, where power is delegated to the people

The biggest challenge facing Ireland in the decades ahead will be the North. We can learn lessons from the Swiss

The gothic cathedral of St Peter, perched on top of the walled citadel of Geneva’s old town, is completely devoid of ornamentation. No candles or saintly statues, no plaques, paintings or elaborate stained glass, just austere grey walls. Only a prayer book adorns the simple altar, no bigger than a basic kitchen table.

This is the St Peter’s of the Calvinists, their sober alternative to the pomp of Rome. Adjacent is the Musée de la Réforme, which documents the history of French and Swiss Protestantism, the 16th- and 17th-century civil wars, the massacres, the persecution, exile and ultimately survival of Calvinism, a religion surrounded on all sides by Catholicism.

The most fascinating exhibit was a tiny 17th-century Bible, so small it could be hidden in the trussed-up hair of Huguenot women. Dissenters risked torture and death if the book were to be discovered. The core of the Swiss-French “reform” was the Bible and the individual’s direct relationship with God via the scripture, unmediated by the church, priests or the Vatican hierarchy. This emphasis on personal responsibility, without the need for layers of higher authority, made 16th-century Calvinism both revolutionary and incendiary.

Today Calvinism is on the wane in once-devout Switzerland, but its legacy is a reliance on the engaged individual – evident in the unique political system that has managed to keep this multilingual, multiethnic, multireligious confederation intact. Underpinning the Swiss system is direct democracy where local politics and politicians run local affairs, and the proximity of the people to power is the cornerstone, making the engaged citizen more accountable and more responsible.


Swiss governance boils down to the principle of subsidiarity. Anything that can be done at a lower political level should not be done at a higher level, and the balance of power in Switzerland is shared between the three Cs – the Confederation, the Cantons and the Communes.

The Confederation, or national parliament, handles issues of national importance and scale, such as defence, foreign policy, customs and monetary policy as well as nationwide legislation. Each of the country’s 26 cantons determine regional budgets, taxes and healthcare. Lower down, the 2,131 communes determine local rates of taxation, planning regulations, and schools and welfare provisions. About 80 per cent of these communes employ direct democracy, whereby all residents are invited to cast votes in a communal assembly, giving everyone a say and a responsibility.

One result of this power structure is that in terms of people’s everyday lives, the local communes have more power than the national Confederation. Power is inverted: local people make local decisions. Imagine trying to explain to a Swiss citizen an Irish Supreme Court judicial review procedure to determine the “constitutionally legitimate” height of a specific new building? What might they think of a system where the highest court in the land adjudicates in a local planning dispute?

On Wednesday, as I was strolling around the Musée de la Réforme, my phone started hopping. Leo Varadkar had resigned. With so much power resting in the hands of one individual, it’s hardly surprising that this is big news. By evening, there were articles in the New York Times and the Financial Times noting his departure. Varadkar is world news. In contrast, few outside Switzerland even know the name of the Swiss prime minister – and that’s the way they like it. Maybe we could learn a thing or two from the Swiss.

It is quite clear that the system Varadkar has sat atop is not working for many of the people in the country. We can’t build hospitals on time, we can’t build metros on budget, we can’t build enough homes in the right places at the right price for the right people. We invoke the Constitution in rows between neighbours, critical Government development plans end up in the courts, mangled and disembowelled by spurious individual legal “rights”, while the rest of the population suffers in traffic and delays.

As a result, we are a rich country that feels like a poor one and, despite private wealth, the public realm atrophies because everyone is in control and nobody is in control, leading to political apathy and, ultimately, the erosion of trust between the citizen and the State.

On top of this we have a form of “spectator democracy” where every four years we are asked to give the thumbs up or down to various politicians and parties. Once that decision is made, the vast majority of us pack up our political tent, sit on the sidelines and spectate, while the winners of the once-every-four-year beauty contest try to run everything – from determining what day is bin collection day and the salaries of talkshow hosts, to drumming up international support for Gaza, joining Nato or renegotiating the EU’s terms on Brexit.

It’s a big ask, and it should not be surprising that the system doesn’t deliver. According to Einstein, a Swiss citizen, the definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. If we stick to this political system despite the evidence of it not working, things will get worse.

Looking to the decades ahead, whether we like it or not our biggest challenge will be Northern Ireland. Demography doesn’t lie and it is pointing in the direction of some form of reunification. To achieve this the political entity that is Ireland will have to change profoundly. One side cannot be seen to bully the other.

One way to reduce the possibility of sectarian strife is devolved government and fiscal federalism, where what can be done locally is done locally. The reason the Swiss devolved power in the 19th century was precisely to avoid a power struggle between German and French speakers, between Catholics and Calvinists. When power is local, the national – the flags and anthems – become less significant.

If the 800,000 unionists who live on this island were to govern themselves in a new country, raise taxes from their own brethren and run their own local councils, while sending delegates to a national parliament for discussing foreign policy, then they would be more autonomous within the new Ireland. For the rest of us, exploring the Swiss model would make politics work better for all, because local people will determine local issues, pay more attention to detail and, naturally, we will feel like mandated participants rather than disgruntled observers. We will also be responsible for our own backyards, and won’t have the excuse of pointing fingers at “those fellas up there in Dublin” or “inside in the Dáil”.

What about finding our inner Calvinist when it comes to how we run the country? As I left the Musée de la Réforme, it struck me that the new Ireland could be well served by a dose of Protestant pragmatism, where power is delegated to the people, where centralised fiscal competence is entrusted to the counties, where politics is federalised to the provincial levels, and where the country is run from the bottom up rather than from the top down.

For the minority unionists, a federal Ireland would be the most Protestant political move since the Penal Laws. Surely there couldn’t be a problem with a Calvinist Constitution ... It could even be called a Covenant.

Who could resist that?