Fianna Fáil favours model used by US Congress as basis of its political reform policy

Party leader Micheál Martin puts forward proposals to ensure independence of parliament

Fianna Fáil leader Micheal Martin during his opening speech of the 74th Fianna Fail ardfheis held at the RDS earlier this year. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times

Fianna Fáil leader Micheal Martin during his opening speech of the 74th Fianna Fail ardfheis held at the RDS earlier this year. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons/The Irish Times

Mon, Jul 22, 2013, 11:59

The zeal of parties for political reform is never higher than when they are in oppositon and never lower than when in government. Fianna Fáil set forward (relatively) dramatic proposals for reform when in opposition in the 1990s but implemented very few of them, and even then in a diluted way.

The party, now in opposition, is saying the same thing about the Fine Gael and Labour Coalition, arguing that not alone has its ‘democratic revolution’ not materialised but that the power of Government over parliament is actually incresing. In a major new policy paper to be published later this week, Fianna Fáil sets out its own proposals for its own ‘democratic revolution’.

Party leader Micheal Martin said the the fundamental rationale of the paper was to is declare the independence of the parliament from the executive

“The dominance of the executive over parliament is extraordinary. If you look even a the example this week, the Government decided to kick Fine Gael deputies off committees because they voted against it on the abortion bill. In most other jurisdictions, the executive would not be allowed to do that.”

The major proposals put forward in the paper are to give the Oireachtas radical new powers that will allow it have more equitable status with government when considering new legislation, reviewing or researching proposals, and getting legal opinions on bills and policies.

The proposed model is based on the Congressional Budget Office in the United States. The Fianna Fáil paper calls for a new Office of Policy and Economic Oversight, which will give Oireachtas members and committees resources to research, review, analyse and scrutinise legislation independent of Government.

The paper has also called for the office of the legal counsel of the Oireachtas to be greatly expanded and given a more formal statutory role because at present TDs and Senators cannot hope to get the legal advice available to government.

“In an absurd feature of the Irish system the Oireachtas is not entitled to see the legal basis for most of the proposals placed before it. The Attorney General who is effectively a member of Government provides legal opinions to ministers but they are never released to legislators.”

The two new offices would cumulatively give the Oireachtas parallel powers to counterbalance those of government.

The second major reform is to reduce Government control of the parliamentary agenda.

Among the measures proposed are the introduction of a ‘Regular Order’ setting out a minimum timetable for debate (and cutting down on the notorious practice of applying guillotines to debates); as well as an end to the ban on ordinary members of the house introducing money bills.

The paper also calls for the Ceann Comhairle to be elected by secret ballot rather than by Government, as happens in Westminster.

There is some agreement with Government proposals on Oireachtas committee, in that Fianna Fáil also agrees that chairs should be selected using the d’Hondt system of proportional selection, used to select ministers from different parties for the Northern Executive.

There is also a recommendation that ministers will no longer have to be serving members of the Dáil or Seanad. The party also favours some form of list system but does not specify the model in this paper.

Mr Martin conceded Fianna Fáil also failed during its its time in government in terms of political reform.

“We did not reform the fundamental architecture of the system in terms of making the Oireachtas independent,” he admitted.

The paper has also accepted Fianna Fáil has flip-flopped on the Seanad. A separate paper setting out the party’s argument for its retention will be published later this summer.