A rare chance to create a more effective Oireachtas

 

OPINION:Reforming zeal usually wanes in office, but Opposition proposals would be very significant if implemented

NOEL WHELAN’s scepticism concerning the prospects for political transformation in Ireland is not unreasonable (Opinion and Analysis, January 1st). Any objective survey of the fate of proposals for fundamental political reform over the last 40 years leaves little room for optimism.

This is particularly the case in relation to the Houses of the Oireachtas – the one major national institution that has thus far not engaged in a process of evaluating how it may have directly or indirectly contributed to the current crisis. Is it not reasonable to ask whether or not it is the duty of a national parliament to scrutinise government, to regulate regulators and to uphold the integrity of the State?

A simple but fair characterisation of the Oireachtas’s development over its 90 years has been (with few notable exceptions) one of ever-diminishing formal opportunity for the opposition to challenge government successfully, and a tightening of the executive’s control over what parliament does or does not do.

The principal benefit of the resulting parliamentary system is that it provides for a relatively efficient, and legitimate, processing of government business. However, the compounded effect of this over time for the standing of parliament in our democracy, and the quality of debate, decision-making and law at national level has been enormous.

The need to address these defects has long been recognised but historically the desire of opposition parties to address them wanes dramatically upon crossing the floor and assuming office.

Recently, some proposals for reforming parliamentary business were developed by a Government working group set up in 2009 but since their referral to the Committee on Dáil Reform they have remained in limbo. More immediately, both Labour and Fine Gael have published substantial proposals for reforming the Oireachtas which, correctly in our view, do so as part of wider reforms of the administrative and political systems.

While much attention has been given to the possible demise of the Seanad as part of these agendas, the other proposals by the parties for the Oireachtas are – if implemented – extremely significant. For possibly the first time in the history of the State, a window of opportunity has presented itself to reverse the decline of parliament and to provide the basis for a more effective form of parliamentary engagement.

Of course, substantive parliamentary reform alone will not solve the many problems currently facing the State or the well-rehearsed shortcomings of Irish democracy. Neither, however, is it mere symbolic change and if indeed we join the majority of our fellow EU member states in choosing to have a unicameral legislature, this process will necessarily involve an appraisal of the business of parliamentary politics in Ireland and consequently the way our politics works.

Experience of such changes elsewhere tells us that as well as overhauling the parliamentary timetable, the means by which parliament engages with and uses external expertise will become more important; and the role and work of parliamentary committees will assume an unprecedented significance. It is fitting that parliament is at the heart of change, and that it should be its driving force. But it cannot expect others to follow where it does not lead and it must show itself willing to ask serious questions about its role and our underlying political culture.

Equally, the debate about parliamentary reform should not be solely about the future of Seanad Éireann but rather how best the Oireachtas can meet the many substantial challenges it continues to struggle with. These include meeting its formal obligations under the Lisbon Treaty, addressing changes in EU governance more generally, bringing accountability to the extension of the State’s regulatory authority and restoring confidence in the quality of our public institutions.

At a minimum a meaningful process of Oireachtas reform must be comprehensive in its remit; not piecemeal. In order to ensure public confidence in its seriousness and integrity, and also to ensure its independence, it must include external expertise and the appointment of an independent chairman.

It will lack all credibility if left to politicians alone and will almost certainly be sidelined along the way. A meaningful reform process must have not just a strong external component but also a verifiable implementation strategy. Only in this manner can the public be persuaded of the seriousness and sincerity of such an exercise.

It is worth recalling that we have one of the oldest continuously surviving parliaments in the world and perhaps the most fitting and appropriate response to the current crisis would be that our political parties collectively set in motion a process to prepare our national parliament to meet its centenary year in a manner that befits it. If the Oireachtas does not assert itself, others will fill the void.


Muiris MacCarthaigh is research officer at the Institute of Public Administration (IPA). Maurice Manning is a former Fine Gael TD and senator and president of the Irish Human Rights Commission. They are editors of The Houses of the Oireachtas: Parliament in Ireland, a study of the Oireachtaspublished recently by the IPA