Alan Dukes: A chance for the Dáil to reassert its authority

What is needed now is a framework programme of political action that commands the support of a majority in the Dáil.

The Ta and Nil Gates used for manual voting in the Dail Chamber at Leinster Housetaken

The Ta and Nil Gates used for manual voting in the Dail Chamber at Leinster Housetaken

 

To use the hackneyed phrase, “the people have spoken”. One thing is sure: they have not spoken with one voice. This leaves the political system with the task of making some sense of the disparate messages delivered by the electorate and turning that interpretation into a programme of political action.

The outgoing Fine Gael-Labour Government did not get majority approval of the programme it put forward. Neither Fianna Fáil nor Sinn Féin got majority endorsement of their respective programmes even though both gained ground among the electorate.

The principles espoused by the Independent Alliance gained a little traction. The sketchy programme put forward by the Social Democrats secured the re-election of the three “co-leaders” and nothing more in terms of Dáil seats. Renua was rejected. The Anti-Austerity Alliance- People Before Profit got a somewhat expanded mandate to continue with a position of protest for the abolition of charges and in favour of an unspecific “tax the rich” programme. A number of Independents received confirmation of their local popularity.

Despite the inconclusive nature of the election result, the range of major issues of public concern emerged very clearly during the campaign debates and in the candidates’ face-to-face interactions with the public. Given the failure of any party or group to secure majority endorsement, we can take it that the various pledges or promises made by party spokespersons can now be considered void but must now be replaced by undertakings to act in the public interest.

Before the election, I wrote of the policy choices government has to make within the constraints of available financial resources. They lie on a spectrum between, on one hand, concentrating on a select few issues and doing them very well and, on the other hand, doing a little about a large range of issues but not doing anything of great significance about any one of them. Each end of this spectrum produces a result unacceptable to the public. I wrote then, and repeat now, that good government lies in adopting a course of action somewhere between the two extremes and in explaining satisfactorily the rationale behind the choices made.

Neither Government nor Opposition here have properly used the Dáil to do this in a way that gets it across properly and is accepted by the public.

Ideology v

ersus government Arthur Beesley recently wrote in this newspaper that politics without compromise is ideology, not government. That is a message which should be taken to heart by our political system.

What is needed now is a framework programme of political action that commands the support of a majority in the Dáil. It should be a programme articulated over a period of time long enough to allow the results of any reforming actions to emerge. To my mind, this suggests a one-year or two-year programme would be inadequate. The main elements of the financial framework for the economic and fiscal aspects of that programme are already reasonably clear and set out in the medium-term economic framework set out by the outgoing Government. That part of the political programme will need re-examination and will have to be subjected to an updated risk analysis, given the uncertainties in the international background. The Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, the Economic and Social Research Institute and the Central Bank would be able to contribute useful advice (not proposals) to the formulation of this part of the programme.

The structures and processes for the negotiation of a budget by the Dáil are already in place under the European Union’s European semester rules. The Dáil has made some progress in this direction in the last two years but the process could be substantially developed in a more transparent and democratically accountable direction.

The remaining list of urgent issues, demanding as they are, is reasonably short. They include (in no particular order): housing provision (social and affordable housing and homelessness); water supply and treatment; the robustness and sustainability of a fair and progressive tax system; health service provision; education; and regional development. There are, of course, many other areas of public concern, but these seem to me to be the priority issues.

The Dáil committee system has shown the capacity to concentrate members’ talents on important issues. This has been well demonstrated by the Public Accounts Committee (with some excesses) and by the Health Committee, particularly in relation to the preparation of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act. There is no reason to believe work of similar value, sensitivity and intensity could not be done in a selected number of other areas. A limited number of committees could provide the setting for the elaboration and expression of the strands of concern to be woven into the development of public policy in the priority areas. The work of these committees would provide guidance for the executive in the preparation and formulation of legislation.

Transparent Dáil

Over the weeks between now and Easter, the parties and other political groups in the Dáil should set about negotiating a framework programme of the kind outlined above.

There would conceivably be a need for a structure to mediate the debate, since the Dáil will not be in a position to do so in advance of the appointment of a government. The process should be as transparent as is consistent with the right of participating parties to confidential internal preparation. Ideally, all parties and groups should participate in it. The public would know how to judge any refusal to participate.

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