Opposition bills are stuck in a legislative labyrinth

In ancient Greek mythology, the labyrinth was a complex maze designed to confuse and baffle even those with the best of intentions, eventually seeing them become battered and broken lost souls.

However, modern Ireland doesn’t have to look that far back in time, with our very own political labyrinth sending potential new laws around in ever more dizzying circles, leaving them — in the opposition’s eyes at least — with no real hope of ever seeing the light of day.

New figures compiled by the Irish Examiner after a trawl of Oireachtas files show that, despite claims that the era of new politics would make it far easier for opposition parties to enact laws, the reality is proving somewhat more difficult to navigate.

They reveal that 146 opposition bills which have been backed by the Dáil and Seanad are currently languishing in the doldrums of Leinster House due to a string of carefully-crafted legislative hurdles placed in their way.

And while the Government is insistent this is because of the understandable need to use the first months of this year to prioritise the Brexit omnibus bill and costs linked to some proposed legislation, among other matters, its rivals are not happy.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, Labour leader Brendan Howlin, and Social Democrats co-leader Catherine Murphy have all warned they believe their parties’ bills are being blocked once out of the Dáil and Seanad public debate spotlight.

And while the parliamentary paralysis caused by the Brexit soap opera and the ‘do-nothing Dáil’ of new politics is partially responsible, the four party leaders claim the situation has far more cynical reasons.

THE FACTS

According to the Oireachtas figures, a breakdown of which can be viewed at irishexaminer.com, 159 bills are now at second stage review after being initially backed by the Dáil or Seanad.

Of these, 141 are private members bills from opposition TDs, five from opposition senators, two officially from Government, 10 from Government TDs in a personal capacity, and one from a Government senator in a personal capacity.

A 160th bill is expected to pass the Dáil first stage after the Easter break.

The total of 146 bills at second stage from opposition TDs and senators is up from 124 opposition bills at second stage this time last year, suggesting it is becoming easier to promote new laws without being in Government.

However, while this looks good on paper, in practice it is a very different story, with the same breakdown also showing that while this Dáil has so far enacted 114 bills into law, 104 of these were Government bills and just 10 were private members bills from the opposition or individual Government TDs.

The reason for the difference, opposition parties claim, is because many of their bills are being delayed at second stage for up to three years despite being backed by TDs and senators.

And the bills breakdown appears to support the claim, with the official records showing that of the 157 private members bills and two Government bills currently at second stage:

  • 54 have been delayed due to Government department demands for further financial scrutiny, a practice known as a “money message” (all 54 are private members’ bills);
  • 12 are being discussed in more detail by Oireachtas committees (12 private members’ bills, zero Government);
  • 80 more have been referred to committee stage (69 PMBs, 11 Government);
  • Eight have been sent to report stage, one of the final stages before a bill becomes law (one PMB, seven Government).

Individual Fine Gael and Independent Alliance TDs and senators are among those affected, with two Independent Alliance bills, eight Fine Gael bills, and a Fine Gael senator bills facing second stage delays.

However, while it may be due to the sheer number of bills being tabled in the Dáil and Seanad, the party-by-party breakdown also confirms a clear imbalance against opposition bills at second stage, with:

  • Fianna Fáil seeing 63 of its TD bills and three of its senator bills delayed;
  • Sinn Féin — 42;
  • Social Democrats-Greens technical group — 11;
  • Solidarity-PBP — nine;
  • Labour — seven TD bills and one senator bill;
  • Independents4Change — five;
  • Rural Independents technical group — three;
  • Unaligned Independents — one TD bill and one senator bill.

OPPOSITION CLAIMS

Mr Martin said he is growing increasingly concerned about the glacier-like legislative progress. Citing bills by justice spokesman Jim O’Callaghan (one preventing the perpetrators of family murder from benefiting from the crimes, the other his three-year-old parole bill), and social protection spokesman Willie O’Dea (the still-stalled 2016 nursing home support amendment bill), Mr Martin said important laws are being deliberately delayed.

Financial constraints may be a factor, Mr Martin said, but in most cases, he said, there is “no cost whatsoever to the taxpayer”, warning there is sleight of hand at play.

“There is a general view that the Government is being very slow in introducing new laws from opposition,” he said. When asked if preventing rivals from saying they have pushed through certain laws at the next general election is a factor, he said:

I’m beginning to think that could be the problem, yes.

His view was repeated by Ms McDonald, who said the legislative logjam “lays bare the fiction of new politics at work”.

She said the delays are “undemocratic” and a bid to “pull the wool over the eyes of the people by allowing bills to pass through second stage in the Dáil, only to stall ... at committee stage”.

A similar concern was expressed by Ms Murphy, who said while not every piece of legislation merits enactment, “the sheer number of opposition bills trapped at second stage” shows the Government “is using every device available to stall”.

“That is not how the Constitution intended the Dáil to work,” she said.

Mr Howlin, who, as public expenditure minister in the 2011-2016 coalition government, had to block some laws for financial reasons, agreed, warning that the Government is “actively opposing measures with delays to money bills and technical legal excuses”.

“In reality, the Government and civil service is terrified of proposals becoming law that they can’t control,” he said.

GOVERNMENT RESPONSE

Not so, says the coalition, with Government chief whip Sean Kyne adamant there is nothing untoward taking place in the maze-like corridors of power.

Asked to respond to the figures and the opposition claims, Mr Kyne said the reality is there are more practical reasons for the delays.

“Since 2016, it has been easier for PMBs to go through the first stage of debate,” Mr Kyne said. “But some of them have legal issues, there might be advice from the attorney general, they could be poorly drafted and need changes, and that all takes time.

Mr Kyne said some bills initially backed by TDs and senators do not progress as they mirror already planned Government legal changes and, as such, are shelved — citing as an example of his own bill to register Irish deaths abroad in 2014-15 which echoed a similar bill by then tánaiste, Labour’s Joan Burton.

The Government chief whip said the Brexit omnibus bill demanded the full attention of both the Dáil and Seanad in the first three months of this year, meaning some delays in bills were unavoidable.

And, while he acknowledged there are sometimes concerns over the use of “money message” Government demands, he said since December, officials seeking the extra layer of scrutiny must give a timeline for how long the examination will take — ensuring bills are not needlessly blocked.

Whether it admits it or not, the apparent Government plan to leave opposition bills lost in a political maze which has few if any escape routes, seems to be winning, for now.

However, given the fact that a subtle legislative trick only works if no one can see it, the officials who the opposition claims are the creators of the labyrinthine Leinster House problem would do well to remember an important lesson.

Daedalus, the original maker of the labyrinth in ancient Greek mythology, designed the maze so well even he could barely escape it himself.

The moral of the story? Reputation and public trust are vital to a long political life. Lose it, and even those in charge may struggle to survive the bureaucratic maze they have created.

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