More can be done to bring Dáil into present century
The Coalition has done little to redress the balance between parliament and government
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.
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