Inclusive reform of Dail should be all for one and one for all

Adverserial politics should be replaced by European model of multi-member coalitions and oppositions that contribute to policy, say Muiris MacCarthaigh and Mary C Murphy.

Newly elected Ceann Comhairle Sean Ó Fearghaíl

ADVERSERIAL politics has long been a feature of Dáil Éireann. It does not encourage members to reach across the political divide to find common cause.

The announcement by the Taoiseach of a new, all-party committee on Dáil reform represents acceptance that oppositional business-as-usual will not be possible in this parliamentary session.

It may also reform how the Oireachtas operates generally. A new balance must be struck between respecting the right of the government to expedite its business efficiently, and facilitating the right of the non-government members to question, and to have their views reflected in national policy decisions.

A more consensual approach would bring the Oireachtas into line with other European legislatures, where multi-member and minority coalitions are the norm, and where access by non-government parties to parliamentary time, and to some control of the weekly agenda, is commonplace.

There is precedent for the proposed, all-party committee. Just prior to the 1973 general election, then taoiseach Jack Lynch created a multi-party informal committee on reform of dáil procedure, which produced 35 recommendations for reform, 33 of which were implemented by the Fine Gael/Labour Party “national coalition” that subsequently assumed government.

Those reforms copper-fastened the government’s control of the agenda, with most of the amendments aimed at reducing time-wasting and the length of contributions by members during debates.

A more substantial step was the creation by the Fine Gael/Labour Party/Democratic Left Rainbow Coalition of a new sub-committee on dáil reform, within the Dáil Committee of Procedures and Privileges, in 1996.

The early reports of this sub-committee, on the need to improve parliamentary resourcing, were responsible for the creation of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, a major departure that, amongst other things, reduced the executive’s financial control over the work of the Houses.

This sub-committee is standing (ie, permanent) and, though still in existence, it does not meet regularly and has not produced anything of substance since the early 2000s.

It is also unusual, in that, unlike most Oireachtas committees, it has a majority of non-government party members.

Longer-serving members of Dáil Éireann have first-hand experience of the difficulties, obstacles, and frustrations that have prompted calls for parliamentary reform.

The newest members of the House have no such experience, but they constitute a significant proportion of the 32nd Dáil’s membership.

There are 52 first-time TDs, so almost one third of Dáil deputies have never served as TDs before. They are male and female, young and old, and they are affiliated with a variety of parties, groups, and causes. If previous patterns are followed, the vast majority of new TDs will likely spend their first parliamentary term confined to the backbenches. This can be a frustrating place for an ambitious new deputy.

Backbenchers do much of the Dáil’s business. They oversee the legislative process. They sit on committees. They submit oral and written questions. The dominance of the executive in the Irish parliamentary system, however, ordains that their engagement with all these facets of parliamentary life is based on being reactive rather than proactive; responsive rather than directive.

Their voting records, too, are dictated and policed by the party whip. This system risks stifling, even squandering, their skills, abilities, and confidence.

New TDs of all political hues should have a strong interest in challenging this environment, and in being advocates for Dáil reform. They would do well to grasp the current opportunity for change, by forcing the reform agenda.

A political appetite for parliamentary strengthening exists and new TDs can, and should, capitalise on this unique moment. The evidence presented at the Constitutional Convention session on Dáil reform, just two short years ago, would be a good place to start.

Achieving reform at the start of the parliamentary term ensures that new, improved parliamentary practices and conventions are adopted from the outset. Failing to pursue reforms early in the life of the 32nd Dáil risks allowing old habits to persist.

Given current cross-party support for change, however, new, more consensual ways of doing business can smoothly become part and parcel of how the Irish parliament conducts itself.

New TDs can influence how a parliamentary reform agenda is structured, managed, and realised.

A renewed and reinvigorated Dáil is not just in the interests of those TDs, but in the interests of all those who voted for them.

Muiris MacCarthaigh is lecturer in politics and public administration at QUB and author of Accountability in Irish Parliamentary Politics (2005) and co-editor of The Houses of the Oireachtas: Parliament in Ireland (2010). Mary C Murphy is lecturer in politics at UCC and author of At Home in the New House? A Study of Ireland’s First-Time TDs (2013).

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