Dáil a ‘puny parliament’, say four prominent political scientists

Academics’ campaign seeks to identify where political reform can be implemented quickly

The Dáil has been deemed a “puny parliament” by four prominent political scientists who will audit all parties’ manifesto proposals for Oireachtas reform.

Prof David Farrell of UCD, Dr Eoin O'Malley of DCU, Dr Theresa Reidy of UCC and DCU's Dr Jane Suiter intend to publish their audit during the general election campaign.

Prof Farrell acknowledged the Government had implemented some reforms in the Dáil since 2011, with pre-legislative scrutiny of legislation being the most important.

“Many of the other reforms have been more in the area of window dressing and tokenism really, rather than serious political reform,” he said.

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The academics, who have founded Smaointe [Irish for “ideas”] in an attempt to push political reform to the top of the parties’ agenda, launched their 100 Days campaign in Dublin on Wednesday.

The campaign seeks to identify areas where the group believes reform can be implemented quickly and without constitutional change.

Scrutiny function

The group is arguing that proposed reforms could “alter the existing institutional balance of power” and enhance the capacity of the Dáil to perform its function regarding scrutiny more effectively.

“Our starting point is that we have a very weak Dáil. We have a puny parliament, as has often been quoted elsewhere,” Prof Farrell said.

“We have one of the weakest parliaments in Europe and therefore a parliament that is much in need of modernisation, bringing it up into the 21st century.”

Dr Reidy said the number of Oireachtas committees should be increased but they should be smaller in size, perhaps with between eight and 10 members, to encourage policy specialisation among TDs.

She said a new Dáil Management Committee should have the power to allocate positions on committees. In that case, TDs could not be removed from committees by party leaders as a disciplinary measure.

A dedicated committee week is proposed so TDs would not have to leave in the middle of discussions to participate in Dáil votes.

Greater policy specialisation

“We’re not saying that any of these will change business overnight, but over a period of time combined they should encourage much greater policy specialisation by TDs, where they would have more to bring to the table,” Dr Reidy said.

The group has argued the guillotining, or rushing through, of legislation at the end of Dáil terms should not be the exclusive preserve of government.

The recently announced Cabinet proposal to ensure the Ceann Comhairle of the next Dáil be elected by secret ballot has been welcomed by the group, which has called for its immediate implementation.

A review of Dáil sitting hours in order to make the lower house more “family friendly” is also proposed, as is a revamp of parliamentary question procedures to “make it more difficult for ministers to avoid giving full and complete answers to questions”.

Oireachtas committees need to be resourced adequately, with the provision of dedicated staffing and discretionary budgets, according to the group.

Mary Minihan

Mary Minihan

Mary Minihan is Acting Features Editor of The Irish Times