Writing in The Irish Review in 1988, Director of the Institute of Public Administration (IPA) T. J. Barrington made an excoriating critique of Irish governance: ‘For a long time now this has been a very badly governed country, partly because of sustained political failure but also because Irish government has failed to take seriously the task of developing our democratic institutions’. With the accumulation of crises which have characterised the period between Barrington’s diagnosis and the present day, it is clear that more than just the democratic institutions of Ireland have suffered from such underdevelopment.
In the past decade alone, increasing scrutiny of various institutional structures, from the Magdalene Laundries and industrial schools to financial, media and political institutions, has been a defining feature of Irish public life. In addition to the large body of research produced by the IPA on public administration, ongoing controversies surrounding the Abbey Theatre’s programme for 2016 and the Direct Provision system for asylum seekers demonstrate how far-reaching and multifocal this engagement with institutions remains. At a time of radical change in academic institutions, which have often struggled to develop structures for interdisciplinary research or to engage fully with the public, these workshops propose a themed interdisciplinary analysis of Irish society’s relationship with institutions.
The public debate around Ireland’s institutions is incomplete if we do not take into account the diverse networks of institutional practices embedded in Irish society. These networks have deep roots, whether they be religious structures which reach back to early medieval Ireland or organisations engaged in the preservation and maintenance of the island’s ecology. If the opportunity to reform Ireland’s institutions in areas such as governance, economics, health, education and the law is to be grasped, they must be set in comparative contexts with international institutional structures and institutions in other jurisdictions.
Institutions and Ireland will attempt to reframe debates surrounding such structures and address conceptual concerns that stretch back centuries and across disciplinary and national boundaries. Over a series of three one-day workshops in 2016, we will start an enduring conversation about the different institutional structures which have contributed to the makeup of Irish society. Under this overarching theme, we will recognise those organisations which have been formative influences upon the island of Ireland and forge connections between seemingly distinct research interests. In the approach to the centenary in spring 2016, a crucial foundational moment for both the existing constitutional arrangement on the island and the bifurcated institutions which have emerged as a result, we seek to reframe the national debate under broader disciplinary paradigms.
This series of events is generously supported and funded by TCD’s core research theme Making Ireland, which spans fifteen disciplines within the college and explores Ireland as ‘a continuously evolving and plural phenomenon, produced through diverse media and varieties of human agency’. The series of workshops will analyse more fully Irish society’s continuously evolving relationships with institutions and lead to the establishment of a more permanent collaborative network across Ireland beyond 2016.