We should never be ashamed that our Dáil is a ‘talking shop’
We have come from civil war to democratic debate and should now know it’s good to talk
A prisoner under escort during the Civil War. At that time of great bitterness it could not have been foreseen that there would be a peaceful transfer of power after an election 10 years later. Photograph: National Library of Ireland
Earlier this year my father, Patrick O’Halloran, celebrated his 87th birthday. When he was born, on a Tipperary farm, Ireland had just come out of a vicious civil war in which differences between former comrades were resolved with bombs and bullets.
Nevertheless, by his sixth birthday in 1932, the then Free State could be classified as a consolidated parliamentary democracy, having successfully passed a critical test, namely the peaceful transfer of executive power after an election.
It is worth recalling that at the time of my father’s birth most of the world was governed undemocratically. His parents’ generation were the first beneficiaries of universal adult suffrage. It is easy to forget that liberal democracy, an early 20th century marriage of democratically-elected representative institutions and constitutionally-protected civil rights, is at most 10 years older than my father.
Even in the early years of the 21st century, liberal democracies are still a minority in the global order. According to the Freedom House organisation, for example, Ireland is one of 90 out of 195 countries (46 per cent) in 2012 that are categorised as free, in the sense of possessing and upholding civil and political rights.
And the Economists Intelligence Unit’s democracy index for 2012 ranks Ireland 13th out of 167 countries surveyed. Norway, Sweden and Iceland are ranked first, second and third respectively. Furthermore, Ireland is one of just seven countries in the entire survey awarded the maximum score of 10 in the sphere of civil rights. In what should be a salutary reminder to all democrats, 51 countries are classified as authoritarian.
Yet in this period of deep economic crisis and its attendant social devastation, it is easy and understandable to dismiss Ireland as some kind of banana republic or basket case democracy. However, even in times of deep economic crisis, when most of us veer between disillusionment and utter frustration, it is important not to throw out the baby with the bath water.
While Ireland’s political system clearly has many flaws, it also has significant strengths, including a long parliamentary tradition and a legally and culturally-embedded constitutional framework. These are strengths not to be scoffed at.
Two interrelated aspects of our politics regularly invite strong criticism. First, the Dáil is categorised as an irrelevant chamber dominated, as indeed it is, by an all-powerful executive. Secondly, it is dismissed as a talking shop.
That the executive can control much of Dáil business is beyond dispute: a tightly whipped party system and the capacity to use guillotine motions are perhaps the most obvious manifestation of this.
But commentators should avoid suggestions that we live in a system where the executive enjoys total dominance.
Remember that in the early 21st century the greatest check on the executive is public scrutiny facilitated by the electronic communications revolution and a vigilant media. In this regard, Dáil proceedings are televised. Citizens and commentators can and do make their own judgments on how well or otherwise the Taoiseach and his Ministers are performing.
Thus article 15.8.1 of the 1937 Constitution ,which stipulates “that sittings of each House of the Oireachtas shall be public”, acquires special significance in the modern communications age.
The Dáil, like all parliaments, is indeed a talking shop. But this description should be a badge of honour, not a matter for derision.
A core feature of parliamentary democracy is that differences and conflicts in a pluralist society are resolved through talk in parliament and the wider public sphere against the essential constitutional backdrop of civil and political rights.
Parliaments do a lot of talking and parliaments should do a lot of talking.
Of course, on many occasions they need to make binding decisions. But decisions need to be preceded by talk. And when talk is curtailed through the excessive employment of guillotine motions, democrats rightly holler.
On other occasions talk may have intrinsic value, reflecting the mood of the nation. The current Taoiseach’s Dáil apology to the victims of the Magdalene laundries and his speech in the aftermath of the publication of the Cloyne report are cases in point.
Of course, in the cut and thrust of day-to-day partisan parliamentary politics it is easy to lose sight of the larger historical picture, namely that as a people we are well aware of what happens when bombs and bullets replace political talk.
In this regard, as we approach a multitude of national centenaries, I sincerely hope that will be treated as more than a mere historical footnote to the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence.
Dr Anthony O’Halloran is author of The Dáil in the 21st Century, published by Mercier Press.