Eamonn Ceannt as portrayed by Marcus Lamb in TG4's 1916 Seachtar Na Casca

One of the most poignant moments in television last year occurred in the TG4 series, 1916 Seachtar Na Casca. In a docu-drama style approach, the series examined the lives of the seven signatories of the Proclamation. Each week, the final sequence consisted of the signatory in question being marched from his cell in Kilmainham jail, to the stonebreaker's yard for execution.

In the programme dealing with Eamonn Ceannt, the sequence was broken, cutting back to an interview with Ceannt biographer William Henry, who had featured earlier in the programme.

"I feel a great sorrow for the leaders of 1916," he said. "They were totally committed to the ideals of an Irish republic, of an independent state, of an honest Ireland.

"This year at the 1916 commemoration in Eyre Square in Galway, a lady standing beside me turned and said, 'they died for nothing'. For a moment I agreed with her because their ideals seem to have been totally ignored."

In light of all that has transpired over the past decade, who could disagree?

Within a few months' time, the country will go to the polls for what is likely to be the second last time before the centenary of 1916 is upon us. One of the first small states to assert its right to independence lost its economic sovereignty last year.

What would the men and women of 1916 make of the state of the country now? They might well despair of the ideals that have informed the country over the last 90 years. They would surely give short shrift to the leadership which claims lineage from Easter week. Incompetence is one thing, but the last decade – certainly up until 2008 – was marked by wilful neglect on the part of the governing powers. The future of the country was mortgaged for electoral gain, and power ceded, to a large extent, to vested interests. The most charitable thing that can be said about governance over the last two years is that it has been merely incompetent. Opposition politicians cannot be blamed for the mess, but precious few of them shouted stop or suggested embarking down a different route when the country was being run into the ground.

What would Tom Clarke et al make of a system of democracy in which the will of the people is manipulated to award practically all power to the handful of politicians which constitute the executive?

James Connolly would hardly be impressed by those who claim to be the keepers of his flame. His successors in the trade union movement are not without blame for the way things are. What would Connolly have made of the Ictu-organised protest on 27 November last? At least 50,000 people came out in freezing conditions to voice opposition to the direction on which the country is embarked.

When union leaders Jack O'Connor and David Begg respectively took to the stage, there was audible booing in certain sections of the gathering. Nearby, Jim Larkin stood on his plinth, beseeching the ghosts of 1913 to rise up against their oppressors. Many among today's risen people obviously feel that Connolly and Larkin's successors completely lost the run of themselves through the years of bubble and excess.

And what of the people, the Irishmen and Irishwomen in whose name the ultimate sacrifice was offered? Would those who died be impressed by the priorities of electors when they enter polling booths? The most successful vote getters in this Republic are those who tell voters: "ask not what I can do for the country, but what I can do for you (or at least give the impression of doing for you)".

In all of this, it is obvious that the republic envisaged by its founders has not come to pass nearly 100 years down the line. If there is any real interest in moving towards a proper republic by 2016, the first item on the agenda will have to be electoral reform. Proper reform will require constitutional change. We can no longer afford to be governed by leaders whose priorities include attending funerals.

The system, as it stands, is designed to grind down initiative. Who in their right mind would be willing to enter politics knowing that a considerable amount of energy would have to be invested in what is referred to as "constituency work"?

Both Fine Gael and Labour have sniffed the wind and are offering reform. Much of it amounts to window dressing. Abolishing the senate, for instance, is about optics, rather than change. There is no serious appetite among politicians for real reform.

Change will only come through pressure from the electorate and that is where anybody who is disillusioned with politics has a duty to act. It is time to demand the opportunity to change the system. If, following a referendum, a majority turn out to prefer the way things have been done up until now, so be it.

But the disillusionment that exists among great swathes of the public must be addressed. Right now, the country needs hope, and in political terms that can only be offered by changing a system that has patently failed.

It's up to the public to apply the pressure. That requires a change of priorities in choosing elected representatives. It will also require a cultural change in areas like the public service, to a system which is as responsive to citizens as it is to politicians' representatives.

Pushing for change can be a focus for 2011. Constant and sustained pressure will have to be applied. Politicians are masters at long-fingering anything they consider unpalatable. An IMF-style rigorous approach to progress reports – every quarter – might be needed in order to keep the pressure up. There is no reason why it cannot be achieved.

Back in Eyre Square, Eamonn Ceannt's biographer thought twice about the despair voiced by the lady standing beside him. He reconsidered his first reaction.

"I said to her I agree you might feel they died for nothing given what's happened in the country. But now, more than ever, we're going to have to take the country back and make it what they died for, make people think about the good of the country, the good of the people, and not the good of the individual."

Fixing a failed electoral system in time for the centenary of 1916 would be a good place to start.