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

The Dáil chamber: Three-line whips overused and need to be loosened

Fri, Jul 19, 2013, 01:00

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.

Patronage
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.

An elected ceann comhairle would have much greater legitimacy in the eyes of both his/her peers (the TDs) and the government.

To add to this, my second proposed reform is that the Dáil agenda should no longer be determined by the government but rather by a committee of party leaders chaired by the ceann comhairle.

The mismanagement of the abortion debate in the Dáil should never have been allowed to happen. It should be for the Dáil not the government to determine its own agenda. With the exceptions of Ireland and the UK, this is the practice in every other European democracy that I am aware of.

My third reform follows on naturally, namely that the use of guillotines to limit parliamentary debate should become very much the exception rather than the norm. The Government promised to end this practice but, as Harry McGee has shown, it has proven to be a worse offender than its predecessors.

Ireland is one of a small band of countries (together with the UK, France and Greece) where the government can curtail parliamentary debate in this manner. At the opposite extreme are the Netherlands, Finland and Sweden, where there is no possibility to limit debate. In all other European cases that I know of limiting of debate can only be by mutual agreement between the parties.

Fourth, the Dáil committees need to be made a central feature of parliamentary life rather than mere sideshows taken seriously by nobody. Committee reforms so far have done nothing to change this.

The latest promise (but only if the Seanad is abolished) to allocate committee chairs proportionally among the parties is a step in the right direction and would bring us into line with most other parliaments in Europe.

An even more significant change would be to give committees the right to scrutinise legislation at “heads of Bill” stage. This is starting to happen and (again subject to the fate of the Seanad) may be extended. Let’s hope so.

Wish list
The final item on my wish list is strictly speaking not a parliamentary reform but a change of party practice – loosening the overuse of three-lined whips.

Whipping members of parliament into the voting lobbies is a sine qua non of good parliamentary practice. But yet again we take this to extremes. There should be more scope for TDs to disagree with the party line, and any punishments that might be meted out to rebels should be proportionate: on this occasion Sinn Féin was closer to the mark than Fine Gael.

The government should let the Dáil breathe a little. It should let it flex its muscles and provide the level of accountability that a properly functioning democracy needs.

What we have currently and what we’re been offered are well short of the mark.

David Farrell is professor of politics at the School of Politics and International Relations at UCD

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