Noel Whelan: Right time to allow secret ballot for Ceann Comhairle

This Government should change Dáil rules as part of political reform plan

One of the changes most often sought by those campaigning for political reform is for all future ceann comhairles to be elected by a secret ballot of TDs.  Photograph: Frank Miller/The Irish Times

One of the changes most often sought by those campaigning for political reform is for all future ceann comhairles to be elected by a secret ballot of TDs. Photograph: Frank Miller/The Irish Times

 

A certain ritual is played out in Westminster every time the house gets a new speaker. The member of parliament who is newly elected as speaker is expected to feign reluctance and is “dragged unwillingly” by colleagues to the speaker’s chair to be robed and take up the post.

The ritual dates from historic times when the speaker represented the house to the monarch and often faced the monarch’s wrath and therefore required some persuasion to accept the post.

Although here in Ireland we owe much of our parliamentary heritage to Westminster, the ceremonial dragging of the new speaker did not transfer to Dáil Éireann.

Mind you, given some of the travails endured by more recent ceann comhairles, any deputy elected to the office would be forgiven some apprehension in taking up the post.

The Dáil rules provide for the Ceann Comhairle to be elected by a simple majority in an open vote of the House. In reality this has meant that, assuming the government has a comfortable majority, the Ceann Comhairle is always a government TD chosen by the taoiseach.

Precedent requires that once elected, the Ceann Comhairle must distance themselves from active involvement in their party. Seán Barrett has observed these rules carefully. Indeed he has at times had a stormy relationship with the Government.

Prohibiting debate

Few fair-minded observers, however, would dispute that Barrett has done his best to operate the office fairly within the constraints. One of the weaknesses in our parliamentary system is the lack of mandate which the Ceann Comhairle has. The current incumbent, like most of his predecessors, owes his position to the patronage of the taoiseach of the day. While seeking to abide by the requirements to be impartial when chairing proceedings he is often accused of favouring the Government side. The risk of being so perceived is inevitable, since he spent his entire political career as a Fine Gael TD and much of it as the party’s chief whip.

One of the changes most often sought by those campaigning for political reform is for all future ceann comhairles to be elected by a secret ballot of TDs. This may sounds like a small technical shift in parliamentary arrangements, but if coupled with giving the Ceann Comhairle a real say in setting the Dáil agenda, it could transform the relationship between parliament and the executive.

Giving TDs the right to secrecy in the vote to select the Ceann Comhairle would release them from the constraints of the party whip and enable them to choose the person they believe will best defend the role and independence of the Dáil against the government rather then being dependent on it.

This was in fact one of the key recommendations of the constitutional convention. The seventh report of the convention dealt with Dáil reform and its first recommendation was that the role of the office of the Ceann Comhairle be enhanced by its inclusion in the text of the Constitution and that the election of the office-holder be by secret ballot.

The convention members voted by 88 votes to 12 in favour of this proposal, making it one of the most enthusiastically supported recommendations from the convention’s work.

The idea of electing the parliamentary chair by secret ballot is not something new or innovative. Indeed a study of European countries presented to the constitutional convention by Prof David Farrell showed that in all but three of the 18 countries studied the chair of parliament is elected by secret ballot. In Westminster, for example the government has no role in selecting a new speaker. A candidate must be nominated by at least 12 MPs, three of whom must be from a different party from the candidate, then the house votes by secret ballot until one candidate gets an absolute majority.

Change discussed

Irish Times political correspondent Fiach Kelly

At that point on Tuesday morning, the stand-off between Barrett and the Opposition parties was ongoing and Ministers may have perceived that a vacancy in the post was imminent. Barrett’s statement later that day defused the situation .

There is time now, however, to implement this important political reform before the next Dáil. There is nothing to stop the current Government, with its large majority, from changing the Dáil rules right now to allow for a secret ballot when the next Ceann Comhairle is elected.

It would be an important first step in reasserting the power of parliament in our executive-dominated system.

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