Kenny’s late move on fundamental Dáil reform

Taoiseach to propose a change in standing orders to allow the Ceann Comhairle to be elected by secret ballot

Fine Gael’s backroom team has obviously being doing its homework. As well as promising the goodies (lower taxes for the squeezed middle) it has trawled around to ID the baddies (areas where it will be vulnerable to political attack).

It has clearly identified a number of weak points and is trying to head the political onslaught off at the pass.

That surprising initiative on the Eighth Amendment in the run-up to Christmas was a good example: a pre-emptive strike to ward off criticism that the party would not broach the issue of abortion if it won an overall majority.

The hyperbolic term "democratic revolution" has also come back to haunt it. The Government promised radical political reform, but mostly delivered a dud. Brendan Howlin did his bit (thankless politically) in his department. But reform of the Dáil and electoral system was mostly either pitiful or non- existent. Local government reform just didn't work. The abolition of town councils is now seen as a retrograde step.


Dáil unreformed

Dáil reform didn’t deliver on its promises. Despite promises to end the practice, debates on Bills continued to be guillotined right up to Christmas. Ministers weren’t available to answer topical questions. Reform of the


committees bellyflopped. The extra Friday sitting days just didn’t work. Even Enda Kenny’s promised minimal reform of the Seanad following the referendum defeat never materialised.

In addition, the Government’s much-vaunted Constitutional Convention ran into the sand. Only two of its 18 major recommendations were carried through to referendum (the same-sex marriage proposals and the proposition to reduce the qualifying age of the presidency). Some other proposals have been deferred.

Genuine reform

Now, out of the blue,

Fine Gael

has at the 11th hour agreed to a genuine game- changer of an idea in terms of Dáil reform: Kenny will propose a change in standing orders to allow the Ceann Comhairle to be elected by secret ballot.

Until now, the nomination of the Ceann Comhairle was in the gift of the Taoiseach of the day. While the position is constitutionally independent, its holder was always perceived as a creature of government and, in many instances, a consolation prize for a senior politician who didn't quite make the cabinet. At other times, when the Government's margins were tight, it was given to an opposition or independent TD, as happened with Sean Treacy and Séamus Pattison.

Invariably, holders of the office have been accused of being “partisan” in favour of the government. The current incumbent, Seán Barrett, has not escaped that charge.

Support for change

Reforming the Ceann Comhairle nominating process has been suggested by a range of individuals and bodies, from the Constitutional Convention to former tánaiste Michael McDowell, and most of the Opposition parties, as well as Fine Gael backbench TD Eoghan Murphy.

Fine Gael TDs who raised this matter at parliamentary party issues have said the Taoiseach never warmed to the idea. Kenny’s Damascene conversion will be seen by critics as cynical and motivated by electoral concerns.

That said, it will also be widely welcomed as an assertion of independence for the parliament, which is often seen as subservient to the executive.