Abortion debate points way to long overdue Dáil reform
It is time to allow a proper constructive role for backbench TDs and the opposition
In spite of the strong feelings that the issue arouses, Deputies listened to each other’s opinions throughout the debates with courtesy and consideration. Photograph: Alan Betson
The long drawn-out manner in which the Dáil dealt with the abortion legislation was sometimes exasperating and often tedious but, ultimately, it was a demonstration of how parliament should work.
A most controversial piece of legislation was subjected to detailed scrutiny from every angle, criticised by some for being too liberal and by others for being too conservative and ultimately passed by a large majority that did not follow normal party political lines.
A striking feature of the long debates, which included two late night sittings, was the respect with which TDs of diametrically opposed views listened to the arguments being put forward by their opponents and generally responded in a calm and considered manner.
Of course there was endless repetition, particularly by a handful of TDs in love with the sound of their own voices. But that is par for the course in any gathering of 166 elected representatives, particularly Irish ones.
The debate featured an ill-advised manoeuvre by the Government to try and wrap up proceedings by sitting until 5am on Thursday morning. That move backfired because TDs refused to be rushed and there was something admirable in their determination to continue the debate until every last argument and every one of them had been exhausted.
A moment of silliness by one TD in the early hours, predictably hyped out of proportion by British tabloids and social media, should not be allowed to detract from the overall tone of the debate.
Serious things to say
The big contrast with the usual run of Dáil business was the sense that TDs were not simply going through the motions but had serious things to say about an important piece of legislation. Many of them were also prepared to sit in the chamber and listen to the arguments which is not a normal feature of Dáil debates.
The unusual level of attention given by TDs to the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill reflected the deeply held feelings on an issue that has been divisive in Ireland since the 1980s. The dissent within different parties added to the level of interest, although there was never any doubt about the passage of the legislation.
In normal Dáil debates on legislation TDs speak to an empty chamber, filling up time slots allocated to them by the whips with a predictable vote at the end along party lines. This week’s debate was a stark contrast to that stale formula.
It made a powerful case for genuine Dáil reform. The Coalition has many positive achievements to its name over the past two years, but its performance on Dáil reform has been deeply disappointing.
While there have been some welcome developments such as the opening up of the Dáil to private members Bills, the overall impact has been negligible and there is no sense that the Coalition is truly intent on transforming the operation of the Dáil and giving backbench TDs a genuine say in our democracy.
One of the serious reservations many people have about abolition of the Seanad is that it will further erode the prospect of the Government of the day being held accountable by parliament.
A range of new and more powerful Dáil committees has been promised to take over the work of the Seanad. But so far there has been little detail and, even more crucially, no sign of conviction on the part of the Government that it is serious about its pledge.
During the lull in debate during the week one Minister – with long experience in office – mused about the unwillingness of successive governments to reform the operation of the Dáil to give TDs a meaningful say in the construction of legislation.
His thesis was that the problem stems from the higher echelons of the civil service who control the legislative process. “Legislation may be instigated by Ministers but the detail only emerges after consideration by civil servants, the Attorney General’s office and parliamentary draftsmen. Once that process is complete and the Government signs off on a Bill nobody wants TDs messing around with its provisions,” he said.
That effectively makes TDs redundant. They are expected to turn up and vote for a Bill if they are in government and against it if they are in Opposition. With no real legislative function they spend their time competing with each other to do constituency work.
What made the abortion legislation different was that the issue was thrashed out at the Oireachtas health committee last January before going for drafting. The heads of the Bill, which provide the outline, were then presented to the committee a few months later and fully debated before the final piece of legislation was produced.
However, one of the disappointing aspects of the debate was that the Government was not prepared to take any amendments during the committee and report stage of the Bill, even those that were totally compatible with the thrust of the legislation.
Framing of legislation
For proper Dáil reform to happen TDs will have to be given an opportunity to take part in the framing of legislation. Ideally, the heads of a Bill should be given to a committee with the detailed legislation then emerging through discussion involving TDs of all parties and the relevant expert officials.
That would give Government backbench TDs a genuine input into the framing of legislation. It would also provide an opportunity for Opposition deputies to involve themselves in the legislative process. At present they spend most of their time shouting and roaring against measures which they probably know are necessary, at least in principle.
Giving TDs a proper role would also challenge them to act in a more responsible way and stop the play-acting that often passes for political debate. After showing political resolve to deal with the abortion issue Enda Kenny should now give Dáil reform the serious attention it deserves.