Former top Dáil official Kieran Coughlan critical of secret ballot to elect ceann comhairle

The Government’s move to have the ceann comhairle elected by secret ballot has been criticised by the former top official in Leinster House.

Kieran Coughlan, the ex-clerk of the Dáil or secretary general of Leinster House has hit out at the move to a secret ballot, which he said could lead to more government business being done in private. He said the matter should have been put to the people by referendum to decide, rather than it being done by Government decree.

Mr Coughlan said that those who framed the Constitution determined that Dáil accountability requires “openness and transactions being held in public and the Constitution upholds this principle in our parliamentary democracy”.

He said article 15.11 of the Constitution provides that questions be determined by a majority of members “present and voting”.

Mr Coughlan went on to say that the Dáil is obliged to meet in public and can only go into private session in case of special emergency with the assent of a two-thirds majority.

“Thus, while it may be legally permissible to change the election of a ceann comhairle to secret ballot by merely changing standing order, it is difficult to envisage the framers of the Constitution allowing for a secret ballot,” he said.

“A more interesting question arises as to whether having a secret ballot would stop at the election of the ceann comhairle. The attorney general’s interpretation effectively opens the door for a future government opting for a secret ballot in other areas,” he said.

Mr Coughlan said the Government, under existing Dáil standing orders and established practice, modifies the application of standing orders almost on a daily sitting basis.

“There would be nothing to stop a government in the future to opt for a secret ballot on a contentious measure and avoiding the sort of political fallout that occurred with the abortion legislation last year,” he said.

Mr Coughlan said the Convention on the Constitution wisely recommended that a change to a secret ballot for the election of the ceann comhairle should be by way of constitutional amendment.

In response, a spokeswoman for the Government said the Constitutional Convention were unsure if a referendum was required on this issue or if it just required a change in the Dáil’s standing orders.

To cover both possibilities, the convention recommended a secret ballot to elect the ceann comhairle as both one of its four proposed referendums (if constitutional change was required) and as one of its 11 proposed changes to Dáil Standing Orders (if a referendum was not required).

She said Article 15.10 of the Constitution states that “Each House shall make its own rules and standing orders” — the intentions of the framers of the Constitution, as referenced in the letter, are very clear here.


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