Reforming the Dail

Thu, Sep 12, 2013, 18:00

By nudging the door ajar in their proposals for Dáil reform, Government ministers have whetted the appetite of backbenchers who may push it wide open during the coming months. What is on offer, in terms of pre-legislative consultation and increased powers for Dáil committees, represents a significant advance. But it falls well short of addressing the imbalance that exists between the Executive and the Dáil. In the struggle for greater influence and relevance, Fine Gael and Labour Party TDs may play leading roles.

The refusal by members of the British House of Commons to allow Prime Minister David Cameron go to war in Syria provided a striking example of parliamentary power that has not been lost on Dáil members. Even before that event, Government TDs were demanding change within the context of the election promises their parties had made. One of the most outspoken was Fine Gael chief whip Charlie Flanagan who complained the Dáil had been allocated an observer’s role by an all-powerful Executive. This, he said, did not accord with a Constitution that declared the Government was responsible to the Dáil.

The importance of this development lies in an apparent willingness of Government backbenchers to make common cause with opposition colleagues. The election of a Ceann Comhairle by secret ballot, involving a minimum level of support from opposition parties, has been mooted. Established practices, such as the dynamic of a “winner takes all” approach, pitting opposition versus government, are under critical scrutiny. So too is reform of the whip system.

A Government decision to open up the legislative process by involving outside experts who would give evidence to relevant Dáil committees will reduce the influence of civil servants and vested interests and make the process more transparent. The role of the Finance Committee may also be strengthened. Proposals to extend Dáil sitting times, but within a three-and-a-half-day-week framework, indicates the distance that has to be travelled.

Proportional representation and constituency competition encouraged an expansion of parish-pump politics. But TDs are as reluctant as Ministers to alter the system because the electorate favours it. Reforms being undertaken at local government level offer some hope for incremental change. The disappearance of urban councils and the emergence of more powerful local authorities, with direct funding from the property tax, should produce assertive political voices. There too, the level of control exercised by central government and county managers will have to be reduced. As in most situations, power is not lightly given away. If backbenchers and councillors wish to play a pivotal role in decision-making, they will have to fight for it.