Kenny has a chance to leave a legacy of Dáil reform
With Fine Gael lacking an overall majority, the role of the Dáil may change
Enda Kenny: Three crucial areas could decide this Government’s fate: not housing, health and water, but the role of the Dáil, transparency and accountability and Independent Ministers. Photograph: Alan Betson
Some fuss has been made of Enda Kenny’s status as the first Fine Gael leader to be re-elected as Taoiseach. This detracts slightly from the legacy of William T Cosgrave, who as leader of Cumann na nGaedheal, the precursor to Fine Gael, was elected president of the Executive Council (the prime minister in the Irish Free State) on five consecutive occasions between 1922 and 1932.
All the governments Cosgrave led were minority administrations, but he still managed to build stable foundations for the fledgling Irish democratic State, ensuring its survival in the 1930s when many others in Europe collapsed.
While Kenny has little chance of repeating Cosgrave’s five-in-a-row as Taoiseach, his minority administration has the potential to leave a significant political imprint.
In particular, there are three areas that could make or break this Government. These will determine whether it as short-lived as Cosgrave’s third term, which lasted three months in the summer of 1927, or his fourth and fifth terms, which consecutively survived five years in the sixth Dáil from 1927 to 1932.
The three crucial areas are not health, housing and water. The largest government in the history of the State (the previous Fine Gael-Labour coalition) was not able to resolve these issues, so it is unlikely that one half this size will perform any better.
Rather, the issues to watch are the role of the Dáil, transparency and accountability, and Independent Ministers.
While many critics highlight the prospect of this being an unstable government, it is this very threat that has the potential to make it a truly reforming one.
Lacking an overall majority, Fine Gael will now have to listen to the Dáil. The Economic Management Council is no more, genuinely independent voices have been brought into Cabinet, and the manner in which parliamentary politics operates is set to change, for now at least.
The Dáil has three functions – to appoint and dismiss a government, to scrutinise it and to make legislation.
It has never been able to adequately fulfil these functions because of executive dominance. This could change now that the government has nothing close to a majority.
Woefully inadequateEnda Kenny
The input of the opposition into parliamentary legislation has been woefully inadequate in the past, primarily because governments ignored them. This could change now. Private Members’ Bills have a real chance of passing, and Oireachtas committees may have more influence.
The crucial factor that will determine the power wielded by the Dáil will be the attitude of Fianna Fáil. The stability that some claim will result from its facilitating Fine Gael might actually undermine the potential of the Dáil. If Fianna Fáil stands aside on all non-confidence-related issues to let the Dáil decide on the merits of legislation, article 15.2.1 of the Constitution might be realised, which states: “The sole and exclusive power of making laws for the State is hereby vested in the Oireachtas.”
The second area to watch concerns transparency and accountability. The Government has promised reform of the budgetary process, political and judicial appointments, and of the Seanad.
But what about the idea of a genuine scorecard for Ministers, as promised by the previous government? Could Ministers be held to greater account, so that those found to be underperforming would be dismissed by the Dáil? If this were put into practice, Ministers might actually have to answer questions in the Dáil, face more scrutiny from committees (as has been promised), and deal with the repercussions if they fail to meet their targets.
Staying with Cabinet, the third area to watch is the role of the independent Ministers. Non-party technocrats are a feature of some Mediterranean democracies, but it is highly unusual from a comparative perspective for an independent deputy to be a member of cabinet.
Apart from James Dillon in 1948 (and Mary Harney once the Progressive Democrats folded in 2009), the only other cases in recent times of Independent deputies being ministers are in Australia, at the state and territorial level. When this happened, the Westminster convention of collective responsibility was rewritten so that independent ministers abided by cabinet solidarity on issues relating to their own portfolio. On all other issues they were free to act independently.
On the other hand, what will happen if Independent Ministers go rogue? They would not be the first cabinet ministers in Ireland to do so, but are there contingency plans in case? More clarity on this now would help prevent such an issue proving destabilising should it arise.
He may have consolidated Irish democracy, but few recall William T Cosgrave’s minority cabinets with any great fondness, a point echoed in the sentiment of Siptu’s Jack O’Connor this week. The fate of the three political areas outlined above could determine whether Enda Kenny leaves a genuine political legacy, or becomes another “forgotten Taoiseach”.
Dr Liam Weeks is a lecturer in politics at the department of government, University College Cork