Dáil Éireann and secret ballots

 

Sir, – Accountability in the Dáil requires openness and transactions being held in public, and the Constitution upholds this principle in our parliamentary democracy. Article 15.11 of the Constitution provides questions are determined by a majority of members “present and voting”. The Dáil is obliged to meet in public and can only go into private session in case of special emergency with the assent of a two-thirds majority. Thus, while it may be legally permissible to change the election of a ceann comhairle to secret ballot by merely changing standing orders, as advised by the Attorney General, it is difficult to envisage the framers of the Constitution allowing for a secret ballot, and a more interesting question arises as to whether having a secret ballot would stop at the election of the ceann comhairle. The Attorney General’s interpretation effectively opens the door for a future government opting for a secret ballot in other areas. The Government, under existing Dáil standing orders and established practice, modifies the application of standing orders almost on a daily sitting basis, and there would be nothing to stop a government in the future to opt for a secret ballot on a contentious measure and avoiding the sort of political fallout that occurred with the abortion legislation last year. The Convention on the Constitution wisely recommended that a change to a secret ballot for the election of the ceann comhairle should be by way of constitutional amendment, and that is the best way to proceed with such a proposal. – Yours, etc,

KIERAN COUGHLAN

(Former Clerk

of Dáil Éireann),

Dublin 18.