Modernising the Dail
The overhang of history, as the Taoiseach so delicately puts it in an article in this newspaper today, has left this Government with an unenviable legacy. So another set of proposals is outlined by Mr Ahern with the purpose of reforming the regulatory framework for public life. There is a perceived need again to promise more rules and regulations to address the malpractices of the few in the political system.
The new proposals follow the publication by the Government Chief Whip, Mr Seamus Brennan, of an important discussion document A Dail for the New Millennium. It is deserving of closer scrutiny. The recommendations are billed by Mr Brennan as the most radical reappraisal of the workings of the parliamentary system in the Dail since the foundation of the State. A series of changes and reforms in procedures to ensure a Dail that is more accountable and more responsive to the needs of society is proposed.
The whole basis underlying the new proposals is that the relevance and effectiveness of the Dail have diminished in recent years due, in large part, to its outmoded procedures and practices. That is accepted by Mr Brennan and most members of the Dail. There have been many occasions where the rules of the Dail have precluded issues of current interest from being raised on the floor of parliament. Yet, they have been the subject of day-long debate on every discussion programme on the airwaves.
In a bid to make the Dail more relevant to the lives of ordinary people, the Government's discussion document proposes many worthwhile reforms. A new Current Issues Time would take place every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday - with the Taoiseach in attendance for two of those days - where members could raise emerging topical concerns without notice for 15 minutes. There is provision for a Citizen's Petition whereby a matter of public concern could be debated for an hour within three months if there were 10,000 signatures to support it. There would be a new Backbenchers Hour to give a more formal role to ordinary TDs. Written Dail questions would be answered by the Government when the Dail is in recess. The restrictions on broadcasting the Dail would be reduced.
There are other proposals hidden in the fine print of the Dail document, however, which are somewhat disquieting. They appear to turn on its head the constitutional imperative in Article 28.4.1 that "The Government shall be responsible to Dail Eireann". With the presidential-style of politics engaged in by successive governments, it is now proposed that the Taoiseach would take Questions Time one day a week, instead of two at present. The argument is made by Mr Brennan that Taoiseach's questions account for over 30 per cent of the total time available to all of the Cabinet. So it should, with the over-riding power of the Taoiseach's Office these days.
Much is made of the extended Dail sitting times proposed - 10 hours on Tuesday, 11 hours on Wednesday and nine hours on Thursday - but the Dail would sit in plenary session only three out of four weeks in the month. The last week would be set aside as Committee Week. These proposals also would make the Government less accountable to the Dail for one sitting week in four. The Government is also suggesting a more structured role for Independent TDs allowing them to table priority questions and private members' motions. The aspiration for Dail reform is high in the Government's discussion document but the Government must not be allowed to become less answerable to the Dail.