More can be done to bring Dáil into present century
The Coalition has done little to redress the balance between parliament and government
The Dáil chamber: Three-line whips overused and need to be loosened
With the death knell apparently sounding on the second chamber of our national parliament, the Seanad, attention inevitably is focused more sharply on the first chamber, the Dáil.
And it needs to be. Farcical scenes were seen during an unnecessary late-night sitting forced by a combination of the Taoiseach wanting to “get rid” of the abortion legislation, the heavy hand of the party whip that appears to have consigned a few political careers to the dustbin, and the Government’s willingness to apply the guillotine to kill off debate.
All indicators of something seriously amiss in our parliamentary process.
They all point to the same problem, namely that the parliament and its members are subservient to the government – very different from the position proposed in the Constitution (article 28.4.1) that “The Government shall be responsible to Dáil Éireann”.
The current Government promised that this would all change. Its 2011 programme for government promised radical change. Some changes there were, but, as Harry McGee recorded in his recent analysis in this paper, the reforms to date have had mixed results, and certainly have done little to redress the balance between parliament and government.
More recently, Government interest in Dáil reform has been rekindled as a result of its desire to abolish the Seanad: the offer to the Irish electorate is that further Dáil reform will follow, but only in the event that the Seanad is killed off.
The Government’s efforts to date have been disappointing. More could be done to bring the Dáil into the present century. In this article I suggest five areas of reform that I believe would help make it a more significant player vis-à-vis the government. This list is not comprehensive, but I believe would represent an important start to fixing the Dáil.
The starting point is to empower the office of ceann comhairle by ending the current practice where, in effect, the Taoiseach of the day appoints him (to date they have all been men). The only constraint on a Taoiseach arises in the event of a hung Dáil that reduces the Taoiseach’s room for manoeuvre.
The effect of treating the position of ceann comhairle as part of the patronage power of the Taoiseach constrains the office holder as chair of the House, reduces his/her ability to ensure that the Dáil holds the Taoiseach or Ministers to account when required, and limits the degree of respect with which they are held by TDs (witness spats between Seán Barrett and some TDs over modes of dress).
One easy solution is to have the ceann comhairle elected by a secret ballot of all TDs (something which, incidentally, Fine Gael proposed in 2010 but appears now to have been forgotten about). This is not as radical a proposal as it might seem. The UK adopted this procedure in 2007. In fact, with the partial exception of the Danish parliament (whose members elect the speaker by an open ballot) all other European parliaments that I know of use a secret ballot to elect the parliament chair.