Let’s save the Dáil from contempt of the politicians who control it

I believe that’s tragic. Actually, it’s also hugely dangerous. The more respect for parliament is allowed to be corroded, the closer we all get to a slippery slope – and it’s the slippery slope, believe it or not, that leads to effective dictatorship.

SO they’re gone. And they won’t be back until sometime in September. We won’t miss them, of course, although we should. And at least once a week, somebody will remark on radio that the country seems to be doing fine without them. Perhaps we could do without them altogether.

It’s the TDs, of course. Every year around this time there’s the usual ritual about the long holidays and the way in which the Government has used the guillotine to stifle debate and rush stuff through. And every year the TDs disappear anyway, with all the usual platitudes about working hard in their constituencies and not really being on holiday at all.

It’s all kind of sad – even though the ritual is repeated every year, it never seems to result in any meaningful change. They’re gone, and they’ll be gone for the guts of three months.

And even when they come back, they won’t make much difference to our daily lives. It’s Nama that’s important now, or An Bord Snip Nua, or even the social partners, although they have faded into insignificance somewhat in recent times.

The ones we elect to represent us and to whom we give the “sole and exclusive power” to make the laws by which we are governed just don’t seem to matter, do they? It ain’t supposed to be that way.

That “sole and exclusive power” reference is a direct quote from our constitution. You know our constitution, don’t you? It belongs to all of us and you can tell we value it because we’ve never made it easy to change.

Well, from article one to article 50, at least in my printed version, there are 180 pages in the constitution (every second page is the Irish equivalent of the facing page). There’s a page or two devoted to the family, another page or so devoted to education. But just under 60 pages deal with the parliament and the lawmaking process.

How they’re elected, who they represent, what they do, how laws get made – all that stuff is dealt with in huge detail.

Because it’s important. If those 60 pages weren’t there, we wouldn’t be living in a democracy. But in some senses, they might as well not be there at all.

As RTÉ’s political correspondent, David Davin Power, put it in a thought-provoking piece on the radio last Sunday, our national parliament has become a nuisance to the real powers in the land. They – and I assume he means the Government and senior civil servants – have come to see the parliament as essentially an obstacle to the orderly running of government. That is why parliament is ignored most of the time and then treated with contempt at times like last week when important and controversial legislation was guillotined through the parliament before they were sent on their holidays. Incidentally, you can search any text you like of Bunreacht na hÉireann and you won’t find any reference to the guillotine.

That’s because a guillotine, when it’s used to end necessary debate, is a profoundly anti-democratic instrument. It flies in the face of basic democratic values when a simple majority of votes is enough to silence debate.

That’s why, in the US Senate, for example, a debate on a measure can only be ended when there is all-party consent for it to be ended, or when at least 60% of the senators turn up and vote to end it.

Here, the guillotine is used so often – especially in relation to things like the finance bill – that measures not infrequently get passed into law that have never even been read out loud, never mind debated.

But if a body like the national parliament isn’t taken seriously by other supposedly democratic institutions, and if its members are largely seen as irrelevant by the people who elect them, whose fault is that?

There have been times in our history, after all, when people would turn on the radio to listen live to a parliamentary exchange.

In the not too distant past, there have been great set piece moments in the parliament, great confrontations that changed the course of events. Somehow, it’s hard to imagine that happening now.

I believe that’s tragic. Actually, it’s also hugely dangerous. The more respect for parliament is allowed to be corroded, the closer we all get to a slippery slope – and it’s the slippery slope, believe it or not, that leads to effective dictatorship.

I worked in the national parliament for the best part of 20 years. Over that time I came to revere it as an institution and to be totally frustrated with its unwillingness to take itself seriously.

And the truth is that until it does begin to take itself seriously, as the place where the interests of the people are truly represented, on a basis of conscience and as a place where other institutions are held to account on behalf of the people, then there is little enough reason for others to take parliament seriously.

Here are three reforms that would, over time, make a huge difference in how our national parliament views itself first – and ultimately, in how it is viewed. These reforms require only changes to the rules of the parliament – other reforms would enhance the standing of parliament further, but they may require constitutional change.

First, except in extreme circumstance, abolish the guillotine – or introduce a 60% rule to enforce one. If it means that difficult measures will get an extra day’s debate, or even an extra week, nobody loses and democracy gains.

Second, introduce a petitions committee, like the one on the European Parliament. Such a committee would have to operate without a government whip and it would enable individuals or communities to make a case to the national parliament about fundamental issues of concern to them.

THESE could be about some of the issues we’ve seen on the nine o’clock news in recent weeks – landslides in Co Mayo, road safety issues in particular areas, management issues at rock festivals. The committee would then assign a member to prepare a report on the issue, having interviewed everyone relevant. The petitions committee in the European Parliament has had huge success over the years not only in involving citizens, but also in changing public policy.

Finally, introduce a rule allowing every member of parliament – government or opposition – to draw up a piece of legislation on a subject that he or she passionately believes in. It might be necessary to have a rule limiting the exposure of the taxpayer to certain costs, but apart from that deputies should be free to introduce a bill on any subject they wanted to.

A lottery could be introduced so that one such bill could be drawn from a hat, say once a fortnight, and then debated and voted on without any whip whatsoever, so every member of the parliament would be free to support or oppose – depending on the merit of the idea.

It can be done. Our parliament can be made to matter again. But only by its own members – and only if, once and for all, they start earning all our respect.

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