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.