Dáil returns to largest in-tray in its history
There are 115 Bills clogging up in the Dáil, with the vast majority having no chance of being passed
Dáil Éireann: One senior Government TD believes that in the current arrangement “the Government has conceded parliament to the Opposition”
The Dáil returns on Tuesday to the largest in-tray in its history, and not just on national controversies such as abortion, the Garda and the Department of Justice, health and housing.
There are 115 Bills clogged up in the Dáil works, with the vast majority having no chance of ever being passed. These pieces of legislation are completely separate from the Government-initiated Bills working their way through the system, which are in the main destined for eventual enactment.
The 115 Bills have been introduced as Private Member’s legislation (Bills by Opposition TDs and Senators, as well as by Government backbenchers) as part of the almost two-years-old minority Government “new politics” arrangement.
It is an arrangement increasingly criticised by the two largest parties in the Dáil – Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, the developers of the confidence and supply deal that keeps the minority Government show on the road, for now at least. The Government no longer gets to determine the business of the Dáil.
One senior Government TD believes that in the current arrangement “the Government has conceded parliament to the Opposition”.
People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett admits that parliament is choked up, but says “it’s nonsense to say the Opposition controls the Dáil”.
“The vast majority of legislation that actually goes through is still Government legislation or anything that the Government and Fianna Fáil agree. And the Government and Fianna Fáil in their supply and confidence arrangement essentially control the Dáil.”
Very outside chance
Sinn Féin whip Aengus Ó Snodaigh agrees. “If you have a Bill you get to launch it, you get a bit of publicity on that, and if it gets taken in Private Member’s time you get two hours on the topic you have picked and then that’s it. There’s a possibility, albeit very outside chance, that the Bill will go through all stages.”
There have been a few Opposition successes, including legislation from Sinn Féin finance spokesman Pearse Doherty to end the six-year limit for making a complaint to the Financial Services Ombudsman and a Bill from Fine Gael backbencher Tony McLoughlin which bans onshore fracking.
The Opposition initially focused debating time on motions on the issues of the day like health and housing. However, that became a frustration because while the Government has frequently been defeated in Dáil votes – more than 30 to date – it is now a mere embarrassment but requires no action. So TDs have moved in ever increasing numbers to produce legislation.
Efforts have been made to deal with the logjam, including the Dunning report which looked at the operation of the office of the Parliamentary Legal Adviser, an independent legal adviser to the Oireachtas. One recommendation acted on was for the office to provide, for the first time, advice to TDs on the drafting of their Private Member’s Bills.
It also looked at how other parliaments work. Mr Ó Snodaigh noted the Scottish parliament allows for a maximum of six pieces of opposition legislation during its term. There would be more rigorous preparation but better legislation would be produced. However, the Dáil reform committee rejected that suggestion.
Fianna Fáil whip Michael Moynihan is not convinced by Opposition suggestions that the new system is more democratic in giving all TDs a say.
“From the Fianna Fáil point of view, there are 44 Deputies there at the moment, and in some debates we have the same speaking time as groups that have two or maybe four TDs. If you take democracy to its ultimate it means the majority decides.”
He is frustrated by the Dáil Business Committee, which is made up of eight groups and decides the business of the House. Mr Moynihan feels it is not reflective of the numbers in the Dáil, but that “some of the smaller groups don’t want to have any real democracy because their voices would be quenched”.
Mr Boyd Barrett disagrees, saying the Opposition is bigger but “the speaking time is overwhelmingly proportionately allocated”.
One attendee at Dáil Business Committee meetings who declined to be identified believes the Government has conceded the management of Dáil business to the administrative staff of the Oireachtas – the secretariat.
At a business committee meeting there are usually nine or 10 politicians and “maybe 15 officials with briefcases, boxes and files. I’ve no idea what’s their input or what the story is but it could be nearly 2:1 of officials to politicians.”
The TD says “officials are very fast to stop something or say ‘that can’t be done’ or some vague standing order is brought in to change some system”.
During this term TDs will introduce new legislation and that 115 Bill in-tray will continue to grow. Calls for a general election will pepper away amid frustration with the confidence and supply system. However, the likelihood of another minority government appears higher than an arrangement with an overall majority should the public go to the polls.
At the end of the day the only safe seats after those of the secretariat, who will continue to administer whatever the winning arrangement proves to be.