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Noel Whelan: New Dáil term a fresh chance for new politics to prove itself

Government’s claim to be able to legislate will stand or fall on progress of alcohol Bill

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar faced questions for an hour when the Dáil returned this week from its lengthy recess. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Our legislature didn’t exactly hit the ground running on its return this week from its lengthy recess. The Dáil sat for just two days and the Seanad did not sit at all. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar faced questions for an hour, two of his Ministers faced questions for 90 minutes each. Only one piece of Government legislation was discussed in the chamber.

This was the Social Welfare Pensions and Civil Registration Bill 2017. It is largely technical and was effectively finalised last term. It is back in the Dáil because during the recess some amendments were made to it in the Seanad which now have to be considered by the Lower House. It will be finalised within weeks and so will give the Government an early win in seeking to show it can pass legislation this term.

Two Opposition Bills were also debated in the Dáil this week, each of them for a couple of hours. One of these was a Solidarity-People Before Profit proposal to hold a referendum to provide for a constitutional right “to secure, affordable, dignified housing, appropriate to need, for all the residents of Ireland”. The Bill has no prospect of being passed by the full Oireachtas, so there will be no such referendum and other parties were dismissive of the Bill as consuming time and energy which would be better focused on tackling the housing crisis.

Wind turbines

The other Opposition Bill was one from Sinn Féin, which would provide for greater regulation of wind turbines. If ever passed it would impose a disproportionate burden on wind farm developers relative to those involved in other projects. Like many Private Members’ Bills its text in places appears aimed at grabbing attention rather than substantial legal change. One of this Bill’s sections, for example, provides that developers of wind turbines must advertise a statutory mandated public meeting on local radio as part of the planning application process.

Legislation is not, of course, the only work of parliament. It wouldn’t want to be. This week an Oireachtas committee held an important engagement with MEP Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator; and, elsewhere, another committee began work on framing proposals for an abortion referendum.

That said, the new Dáil term represents a chance for “new politics” to prove it can implement a substantial legislative agenda. With a new Taoiseach, seven Ministers new either to Cabinet or to their departments, and a new chief whip, one would expect, on the Government side at least, greater legislative ambition between now and Christmas.

The new chief whip, Joe McHugh, published his autumn legislative programme on the day before the Dáil resumed. In it he promises to publish 28 new Bills this session. Six of those promised were similarly promised last spring. More than half of the others promised are technical and/or involve the transposition of European Union directives. There is, however, a handful on the list which, if passed, would represent the legislative implementation of significant policy objectives.

Pre-legislative scrutiny

In addition the chief whip has identified 30 pieces of legislation which are described as “expected to undergo pre-legislative scrutiny this session”. Pre-legislative scrutiny involves a process where the heads of a Bill are considered at an Oireachtas committee before they are fleshed out into a full Bill. This list could be better described as Bills “we hope will begin pre-legislative scrutiny this session”. A third of the Bills on the list have not yet even had heads approved; and another 14 are Bills where it is said the timing of pre-legislative scrutiny is “to be determined”.

The Bills most likely to make it to the statute books before Christmas are, of course, those already on the order paper. There are 27 such Bills, so there is much the Dáil and Seanad could get their teeth into straight away if they were so minded. The Disability (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, which is just starting out in the Dáil, and the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill, which is back from the Seanad, are among the most substantial of these. The Public Health (Alcohol) Bill, which has been stalled at committee stage in the Seanad for a long time, is another important piece of legislation. It has been identified by McHugh, and indeed by the Taoiseach, as a priority. In many ways the Government claim to be able to make law will stand or fall in the coming months on the progress of this piece of legislation.

Above all, the next four weeks will be consumed with the budget process and with Fine Gael, those Independents supporting the Government and Fianna Fáil all throwing shapes so they can claim credit for its content. After that it is to be hoped they will get down to more substantial lawmaking.