Noel Whelan: Government had no option but to embrace Dáil reforms

For almost five years Coalition failed to carry out pre-2011 promise of a “democratic revolution”

It is never too late to do the right thing. The Government’s announcement that they will finally implement significant Dáil reform is welcome.

For almost five years they ducked, dived and diverted every effort to have them carry out their pre-2011 promise of a "democratic revolution". Only last month it was hard, even for Government backbenchers, to watch our parliamentary process. Before the Christmas recess, the Government dumped amendments into Bills, guillotined debates and rushed legislation in a manner that flaunted democratic and constitutional norms and disrespected members of the Oireachtas, including the President. Now enthusiastic and full of new year resolution, the Government is to implement proposals for the election of the next ceann comhairle by secret ballot, facilitate a more equitable allocation of Dáil committees chairmanships using the d'Hondt system, and provide for the monthly questioning of the taoiseach before a Dáil committee. They should have done much of this four years ago. Which begs the question: why now? Why this Pauline conversion on the very outskirts of Damascus?

Formal response

The Government suggests this is their formal response to the report of the constitutional convention on Dáil reform. The truth, of course, is more complex. That report was published in March 2014 and there wasn’t a word out of the Government about its recommendations since.

The reality is these reforms are happening now because the Government is being compelled by a co-ordinated effort by the Opposition in the Dáil and by extra-parliamentary pressures.

Last July former tánaiste Michael McDowell delivered a comprehensive paper to the MacGill Summer School setting out how the election of the next ceann comhairle by secret ballot did not require a constitutional amendment but could be done by amending Dáil standing orders.

In November in one final endeavour to have this change made before the current Dáil was dissolved, McDowell and some of the rest of us who had campaigned for political reform prepared a draft text of the precise amendment to standing orders which could achieve this.

A chance meeting with Micheál Martin, Catherine Murphy and Lucinda Creighton on the fringes of a public debate during the Temple Bar Festival a few weeks ago provided the opportunity to open a cross-party conversation on how a motion to obtain this amendment might be achieved. Arising from this Murphy, with typical energy, explored the parliamentary options and reached out to Sinn Féin and Independents, who also offered support.

John Halligan, the technical group’s representative on the privileges and procedures committee, with the support of Seán Ó Fearghaíl TD and others, arranged to get the proposal on the agenda of the committee’s next meeting.

Separately, the Opposition leaders determined that if it was blocked there, they would take it to the floor of the House itself and force a vote on the matter.

Meanwhile, in recent weeks four political scientists, David Farrell, Theresa Reidy, Eoin O’Malley, and Jane Suiter, who were among those who “score carded” the party manifestos in 2011, started to engage again with political parties about lack of progress on reform.

Next Wednesday they will launch an initiative to make it a key electoral issue.

The Government parties knew, therefore, that they faced embarrassment before the electorate for the nakedness of their reform efforts.

A commitment to provide that the next ceann comhairle would be elected by secret ballot was proposed separately by Fine Gael, Labour, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin before the 2011 election. It is also the policy of Renua and the Social Democrats. Recently a number of Government backbenchers publicly restated their support for the idea. Eoghan Murphy TD included it in his internal party document on parliamentary reform published last year and when McDowell spoke at the MacGill Summer School, Regina Doherty TD tweeted to say she and several Fine Gael backbenchers were also in favour of his proposal.

Lack of reform

If the Cabinet had tried to whip deputies to vote down this Opposition amendment to standing orders, some would have bolted and the lack of reform would have been exposed, and any rhetoric about reform from the Government parties during the election campaign undermined.

The Government is now finely tuned to the need to safely dispose of any issues which might blow up on them pre- election. They had no option but to implement their long-parked commitments.

This is an exciting development. The first thing the new Dáil will do is select its own ceann comhairle by secret ballot. It will set the tone for a more assertive parliament after the election.

Assuming they get it done in the next three weeks, the Government will deserve to be complimented for finally making it happen, even if they were cornered into it.

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