Give this essential ‘new politics’ time and it will work

Too early to dismiss as failure: Vital Dáil reform unlikely to be finished before spring

Dáil reform: “It is not just the Government that will have a lot to get used to in the new Dáil – so too will the members of the Opposition.” Photograph: The Irish Times

Dáil reform: “It is not just the Government that will have a lot to get used to in the new Dáil – so too will the members of the Opposition.” Photograph: The Irish Times

 

The term “new politics” is being bandied about a lot of late, and not in a positive sense. Commentators moan about how long it took for the Government to produce its legislative programme and about the lack of ambition in what was finally produced. It’s more than 100 days since the election, weeks away from the summer recess and Oireachtas committees have yet to be formed, the Seanad has met just once and the Dáil seems incapable of doing anything other than pass motions that are going nowhere. You could be forgiven for thinking that this new politics is little more than a bad version of the old.

But before dismissing new politics as a failure it is well to remember that we’re not actually there yet. We’ve still to see the implementation of the Dáil reforms proposed recently by the subcommittee on Dáil reform: this requires a spate of changes to standing orders, the completion of a scoping exercise prior to the creation of a powerful new committee on Budget Oversight and the passing of legislation and re-allocation of resources to establish the independent parliamentary budget office and to revamp the office of the parliamentary legal adviser – with both being given independent statutory status.

The new standing orders will be agreed before the summer recess, but the other developments will take more time. Realistically it will not be until the autumn that the “new” Dáil (new in the sense of a Dáil that will have a lot more influence than the old Dáil) will start to take shape, and spring 2017 before the new budget office will be up and running.

More balanced relationship

Of course, by then the Government may have fallen and we could be into fresh elections, and who knows what that may produce. But the Dáil reform genie is finally out of the bottle: the reforms once made will be very difficult to reverse.

This Government and its successors will have to get used to working with a Dáil that is in control of its own agenda, with an influential Ceann Comhairle who can bring Ministers to book for evading questions, committees that have more influence over the legislative process, and a Dáil whose members have access to additional expertise and resources to ensure a more evenly balanced relationship between government and Oireachtas.

It is not just the Government that will have a lot to get used to in the new Dáil: so too will the members of the Opposition. These reforms will have an impact on all Dáil deputies. Giving control over the Dáil agenda to a new Business Committee comprised of representatives from all parties and parliamentary groups will end regular grandstanding over the order of business. An increased role for Oireachtas committees brings with it a responsibility for TDs to take their committee work more seriously, and a new Dáil timetable designed to minimise clashes between committee meetings and Dáil plenaries will mean they will have no excuse for not doing so.

Constitutionality

Opposition deputies will have greater scope to draft their own legislative Bills with – for the first time – serious potential of seeing their Bills hit the statute books, but they will have to get used to the new discipline of having their draft legislation checked for constitutionality by the office of the parliamentary legal adviser. The production of legislative Bills on the fly whose intent is more about headline chasing than real legislative change will become a thing of the past.

A further economic realism test will be provided by the new independent parliamentary budget office, whose remit will include the independent costing of all budgetary or legislative proposals by Dáil deputies. If Opposition deputies want to propose alternative budget measures these will receive the same costing rigour as the Government’s budgetary proposals. It is likely that the budget office may also play a role in independently costing the parties’ manifestos in future general elections.

There may be a lot of political uncertainty at the present, with real concern about how long this Government will survive, and about its ability to do much of anything for so long as it does. But the one major positive on the horizon is a more influential Dáil. Ireland has long been known for having one of the weakest parliaments in Europe. That is about to change.

David Farrell holds the chair of politics in UCD

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