Daíl’s newest intake deeply frustrated by its straitjacket
The arrival of the Dáil recess coincides with the publication of a report on the working life of the new members of the current Dáil. Commissioned by London-based Hansard Society, and completed by Dr Mary Murphy of UCC, At Home in the New House, is the latest in a series of studies which previously focused on new parliamentarians at Westminster, and the assemblies of Scotland and Wales.
The 2011 Dáil election saw an unprecedented number of new TDs elected. Some 76 of the 166 TDs in the Dáil were never previously deputies. Over the course of the first two years of their term, Dr Murphy conducted two full surveys and a representative series of interviews with the intake. The purpose was to get a detailed picture of the working week and gather their views on the parliamentary system and the supports available to them.
Her conclusions broadly confirm what anyone covering Irish politics would expect, but it is fascinating to see the frustrations of the new deputies reflected in a comprehensive academic study. As well as summarising the findings of her surveys and interviews Murphy gives her own analysis and illustrates her conclusion with direct, albeit anonymous, quotes from interviewees.
The report includes a breakdown of the career paths. About a third were full-time public representatives even before they were elected to the Dáil . One sixth were teachers, 10 have a background in business, five in agriculture, and five from the law. Three were publicans. Interestingly, 68 had served in local government at some point.
One of the most striking findings is that most of the new TDs, even those with Seanad experience, had no real understanding of the job and life of a Dáil deputy before they got elected. Many had been taken aback by the level of constituent/ party demands on their time as they struggled to adjust to their new life .
Some were left feeling “overwhelmed, inundated, even beleaguered”. One deputy (FG) spoke of how the early months were “horrendous, verging on the unbearable, and I contemplated leaving”.
The report confirms that the new deputies are deeply unhappy with the working of the Dáil and with their own ineffectiveness within it. “Frustration ... is palpable and many are troubled by the very nature of the institution.” They are, Dr Murphy says, “particularly frustrated by the limits they face in exercising influence in the Dáil”.
The frustration is shared between Government and Opposition deputies. In Opposition, it is exacerbated by Government unresponsiveness to Opposition amendments and the lack of accountability and openness. On Government benches, by their inability to influence the Government or party position on issues.
The quotes from the new deputies speak of how the Dáil is a “strait-jacketed”, “ unproductive environment”, and of how backbenchers are “generally ignored”. One Fine Gael backbencher complained that “the talents of backbenchers are not being exploited”. A party colleague, two years after having been elected, felt “disappointed, disillusioned and disenchanted”.
One feature of their life in which they have some faith is the work of Oireachtas committees and many argued for a designated “committee week” each month.
Dr Murphy notes that while many Dáil reforms were promised in party manifestos “the bulk of them have not been introduced”. Those which were, like topical questions and additional sitting hours on the first Friday of each month “have not been widely welcomed or supported by the new TDs”.
Among the most popular proposals which Murphy gathered from new deputies were calls for improved quality in Dáil debates, more backbencher speaking time , more family-friendly sitting hours and, notably, enhanced relations with the Seanad.
Murphy found that more than half of the new deputies run more than 10 clinics a week. Notwithstanding the time it takes, and the sheer volume of representations, she found that it is this work which gives many of them the greatest sense of fulfilment.
Deputies spoke of the joy of being partly responsible for bringing new industry to an area and of how proximity to constituents through casework provided an awareness and understanding of the needs and concerns of society.
TDs, it seems, are not alone in this. Dr Murphy points to a study of Belgian MPs for whom constituency casework provided “a sense of competence and effectiveness which they often did not get through their activities in parliament”.
The strongest sense one gets from this report, however, is that the large number of new deputies in our current Dáil crave a greater effectiveness in the Dáil itself. This is very useful research which could, if the Cabinet would only let it, inform real reform proposals for our parliament.