Noel Whelan: Something all the political parties could agree on

Dáil reform should start with secret ballot on election of Ceann Comhairle

‘After the election the parties simply ignored their pre election commitments. The current Ceann Comhairle Sean Barrett (above) was chosen by the then Taoiseach elect Enda Kenny and approved by the Dáil without any vote.’  Photograph: Frank Miller /	THE IRISH TIMES

‘After the election the parties simply ignored their pre election commitments. The current Ceann Comhairle Sean Barrett (above) was chosen by the then Taoiseach elect Enda Kenny and approved by the Dáil without any vote.’ Photograph: Frank Miller / THE IRISH TIMES

 

Each year, MacGill Summer School director Joe Mulholland asks a leading public figure to deliver a keynote address on the opening night in the form of a lecture in honour of former SDLP leader John Hume. This year Michael McDowell did the honours and he chose Dáil reform as his theme.

Much of McDowell’s lecture focused on the need for the ceann comhairle to be elected in future by a secret ballot of TDs. While at one level this would be a small technical shift in parliamentary arrangements, if it was accompanied by new powers for the ceann comhairle it could transform the relationship between parliament and the executive.

In typically forensic fashion McDowell honed in on how precisely the objective could be achieved. He pointed out that what is required is not legislative change or a constitutional amendment but a relatively straightforward change to Dáil standing orders whereby, in advance of a majority vote on a single nomination, the next ceann comhairle would be chosen by TDs in a secret ballot from a list of candidates each with cross-party support.

Sweating the micro

The suggestion that the ceann comhairle should be elected by secret ballot is, as McDowell pointed out, not an original idea. In setting how precisely it might be done however he has laid a pathway to actually achieving it.

In advance of the 2011 election all the political parties promised a secret ballot for ceann comhairle in their manifestos. They did so in part because of the efforts of a number of our leading political scientists who published a “reform card” rating the party promises on political reform.

While getting the commitments into the party manifestos was a worthy effort it had only limited impact. After the election the parties simply ignored their pre-election commitments. The current Ceann Comhairle, Seán Barrett, was chosen by the then Taoiseach elect Enda Kenny and approved by the Dáil without a vote.

What McDowell has flagged is that if this political reform is to happen for the next ceann comhairle there needs to be a focus on it now rather than after the election. Waiting for the parties to put such proposals in manifestos again will be too little and, more importantly, it will be too late.

The standing orders currently provide that when the next Dáil first meets, the clerk of the Dáil can chair proceedings for the election of a ceann comhairle and, it seems, for that purpose only. The clerk could not, it seems, chair a debate on a change of standing orders to allow for the ceann comhairle to be elected in a way other than that set out in the pre-election standing orders.

What is needed, therefore, is a dramatic initiative that would test the parties’ commitment to reform in the next Dáil by moving a proposal for this change in the current Dáil. A cross-party group of deputies should come together and propose an amendment to standing orders this autumn so that new rules for the next ceann comhairle’s election would be in place in advance of the general election.

If all those who have previously declared their support for this change were to support it, it would be carried overwhelmingly. The only way it could be defeated would be if the Government parties imposed a whipped vote against their published party positions.

For example, in its major political reform document New Politics, published before the last election, Fine Gael boldly stated: “The Ceann Comhairle will be elected by secret ballot of the members of the Dáil. We believe that a Ceann Comhairle elected in this way will have greater authority when it comes to managing the Dáil’s business”.

Support for change

In May 2013, Fine Gael’s Eoghan Murphy included the proposal in a personally published policy document on Dáil reform. Several Government deputies spoke in favour of it, and presumably voted to recommend it, at a plenary session on Dáil reform at the constitutional convention last February.

Indeed, as McDowell was speaking in Donegal last Sunday night the Meath East deputy Regina Doherty tweeted: “I, like many Fine Gael deputies, agree with him.”

It seems even that the Cabinet discussed allowing a secret vote last February when for a day or two it looked like the current Ceann Comhairle would resign.

Putting this proposal to the Dáil in September would force deputies on both sides of the House to walk the walk, rather than just talk the talk on the question of real political reform.

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