The Dáil we have isn’t perfect — but it’s better than what we had before

This Dáil, with input from senators, is driving debate and to some degree actual decisions to an unprecedented degree, writes Gerard Howlin.

The Dáil we have isn’t perfect — but it’s better than what we had before

TODAY at noon the joint committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution publishes its report.

The Government will consider its recommendations in the new year. It will propose the text of a constitutional amendment to the Oireachtas, which will then legislate for a referendum. We, the people, ultimately decide. What is happening is important in itself, but illustrative at year-end of a very different and enhanced role for the Dáil especially.

The Seanad remains unreformed. Senators, however, contribute significantly to the public conversation. The role of Senator Catherine Noone as chairwoman of the Eighth committee, is an example. That is not to mention Senator Rónán Mullen. On the vexed issue of water charges, whatever you think of the end result, Senator Pádraig Ó Céidigh as chairman of the committee set up to settle the issue, succeeded in arriving at an end game.

The position of the Government on abortion is both informed and circumscribed by the Oireachtas committee. It is dependent on a Dáil where it lacks a majority, to pass its referendum bill. Differing from the committee will expose political pitfalls.

If there is a reticence anywhere in Government about the proposals, it will be hard to find a political pathway to an alternative and, by definition, less radical proposal. By agreeing to put the committee’s proposals’ to the people, the Government can show clean hands, and allow the referendum take its course. It’s memorable that minority governments in 1981-82 allowed the Eighth Amendment out the of trapdoor and onto the ballot paper. What goes around, comes around.

Then taoiseach Charles Haughey summoned the auxiliary bishop of Dublin Brendan Comiskey and appeared on the staircase at Abbeville in a magnificent blue dressing gown, and descended from on high handed over the text of the amendment.

If that was the high baroque of an untrammelled Irish executive, it is different now. It is not just a change in apparel. Mr Haughey cannot have conceived that one of his successors would arrive at Government Buildings in a singlet and shorts. More fundamentally, the role of the Oireachtas has significantly strengthened.

Partly that is because this Government, like his then, simply doesn’t have the numbers. It is also a function of institutional change that has only partially rebalanced the relationship between executive and legislature. Then there is the surrounding culture. It’s a lot more questioning and less accepting of authority.

A keynote was the election of a Ceann Comhairle by secret ballot at the start of this Dáil. It crystalised the political reality on the floor of the chamber. The Government could propose, but it could not dispose, without the agreement of the House. It was always thus, but now it is a hard political reality, not just constitutional fiction.

Seán Ó Fearghail brings understated authority to the role. The manner of his election gives him a standing his predecessors lacked. It also removes the chairperson as the preferred whipping boy for a frustrated opposition. The fact of the Oireachtas business committee radically alters how business is decided on.

Gone are the days when the government whip basically informed the others what was intended. Some concessions might be made, but only as an act of grace. It was “take it or leave it” mostly.

Dáil business was punctuated by endless rows and votes over the order of business. Oppositions acted up, and governments voted down. Now business is decided on not by government alone but collegially in the business committee. The rows which are still frequent are much more likely to be about policy, than timings and process. It’s better.

Back to today’s report launch, the Eighth committee is one of five special committees established to consider, outside of the usual legislative framework, the major issue of policy. Housing was the first, and that was established last year by the Dáil, even before it chose a government.

Since then we have had similar committees on the future of healthcare, water charges, latterly abortion and most recently the just established committee on mental health. The housing committee’s report formed a substantial part of what became government policy in Rebuilding Ireland. The healthcare committee delivered the Sláintecare Report.

It is an agreed blueprint. Whether it becomes an action plan is another matter. On water charges and abortion, those committees did what they were supposed to do, with varying degrees of consensus: namely arrive at an end game which would have been difficult to achieve otherwise.

The fact is that this Dáil, with significant input from individual senators, is driving debate and to some degree actual decisions to an unprecedented degree.

That is not to speak of the daily refinement of political direction required by the need to muster numbers on every issue, every time. Outside the special committees, line committees mirroring government departments and processing legislation, are much more important too.

Committee stage on bills is a real parliamentary forum. The civil service, however, is deeply discombobulated. In fairness, having been focused since the foundation of the State on servicing and protecting the executive, it frequently shudders visibly when unprotected in the face of an onslaught on the open floor of a committee room.

A civil servant in front of a committee is not in a relationship of equals. Fundamentally, the civil service lacks the aptitude, appetite and in some cases the resources for across the board and intense direct encounter with the parliamentary body. What we have now is seldom elegant. It’s certainly not perfect, but it is a vast improvement on what went before.

Attention in the new year will focus on what the Government proposes on foot of today’s report. But there are other issues to be mediated. Some 156 bills were initiated this year, with 33 enacted and a further six awaiting the president’s signature.

Bills are supported by a library and research service and a legal office in Leinster House. The fundamental role of budgetary oversight is now recently assisted by a parliamentary budget office.

There was a lot of slow walking on the latter from the Government by the way. But it’s there now.

These institutions, like a ceann comhairle elected by secret ballot, will survive a return to majority government. The toothpaste of total legislative control cannot be squeezed back into the tube.

Whatever initiative comes from the legislature, however, it cannot be one that spends money. This is to ensure central government control over expenditure. The Taoiseach must agree in a ‘money message’ to allow such a proposal proceed. This is effectively the last rampart of the executive. It’s a constitutional requirement.

On balance, it’s for the best. But if the Dáil is to take the critical next step towards systematically influencing policy, the challenge is to agree on criteria that would see the government allow in some specified instances, spending legislation initiated there to proceed. Progress, or lack of it, will be a real test of power and influence in 2018.

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