Current Dáil tottering toward demise as 'new politics' fails
Experiment in ‘new politics’ has demonstrably failed
Barbed exchanges in the Dáil between Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin have become more frequent in recent months. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters
The 32nd Dáil is tottering towards its demise and the only thing holding it up is the uncertainty about Brexit. If that matter is clarified in the coming weeks, as is looking increasingly likely, there is very little reason for the current Dáil to continue its increasingly irrelevant life.
It is quite clear by now that the experiment in “new politics” has been a failure. Dáil debates have become a joke with TDs passing mounds of badly thought out and incoherent Bills that will never become law. Meanwhile, Oireachtas committees behave ever more irresponsibly, abusing public servants for cheap publicity as a matter of course.
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin reaffirmed his commitment to keep the confidence-and-supply agreement going until next year at his party’s ardfheis last weekend. But conference delegates and many of his TDs made no secret of the fact that they that they can’t wait to be shut of the arrangement.
Barbed exchanges between Martin and Leo Varadkar have become more frequent in recent months. In his ardfheis speech the Fianna Fáil leader flayed the Government’s performance and the Taoiseach responded with the jibe that Martin is “always either wagging his finger or sniping from the sidelines”.
The closeness of the vote on the motion of no confidence in Minister for Health Simon Harris last week illustrated just how precarious the Government’s hold on power has now become. Harris survived by 58 votes to 53, which means that if just three TDs had voted the other way the Government would have fallen.
The latest manoeuvre by British prime minister Theresa May has brought some clarity to the Brexit process. A no-deal Brexit is now looking very unlikely and a managed exit in the next few months is looking feasible. If that happens all bets will be off as far as Irish politics is concerned as Brexit will have happened and the subsequent talks on future trading arrangements will take years to complete.
TDs of all parties feel that the confidence-and-supply arrangement has outlived its usefulness. It did perform a valuable function in ensuring that the country had a government following the inconclusive 2016 election. That enabled three budgets to get through the Dáil and facilitated the holding of a referendum on the contentious issue of abortion.
Apart from that the Dáil has been able to do little else. With Fianna Fáil increasingly siding with the rest of the Opposition in passing legislation that is opposed by the Government there is no reason to keep the confidence-and-supply arrangement going for a moment longer than necessary.
The “new politics” has seen a dramatic shift in power from the executive to the Dáil but far from heralding a bright new dawn for Irish democracy, as its advocates hoped, the experiment has shown that government by parliament simply does not work.
One of the most worrying trends in the current Dáil has been the abusive treatment meted out to civil servants who have to appear before committees. This has the capacity to undermine one of the pillars which has sustained our democracy for almost a century. The Supreme Court decision in the Angela Kerins case shows that the rot started some time ago but it is getting progressively worse.
The demand that the secretary-general of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, Robert Watt, should appear before four separate committees to be questioned about the cost overrun at the national children’s hospital, which has already been the subject of a lengthy hearing by the Oireachtas Health Committee, demonstrates just how far out of control the committees have become.
The aggressive tone of the questioning at committee hearings is not designed to elicit information but to generate publicity for TDs who quite often leave the meetings once they have made headline-grabbing statements. Patient, careful questioning of witnesses is the exception rather than the rule.
Private Members’ Bills
On the legislative front the performance of the 32nd Dáil has also pointed up the need for an executive with the ability to bring forward coherent legislation and get it passed by the Oireachtas. We have the absurd situation where about 250 Private Members’ Bills have been tabled in the Dáil and many of them passed at second stage but just a handful have made it on to the statute book.
Under article 17 of the Constitution the Government has the sole right to initiate legislation which has implications for the exchequer. This has enabled it to detain a wide variety of Private Members’ Bills in legislative limbo by refusing to issue the money message to allow them proceed to committee stage.
Without this device the Government’s position would have become untenable a long time ago, but it must be questionable how long it can continue to function by hiding behind the money message fig leaf. While there is no guarantee that an early general election would provide a decisive result, the clear lesson of the past three years is that minority government on the current scale does not work in this country. Whatever happens after the next election, the formation of a government with a working majority will be an imperative.