Opinion: Minor reforms of Dáil could make major difference
None of changes require constitutional change and they could be delivered quickly
The election of the Ceann Comhairle by secret ballot, if done properly, can make the Ceann Comhairle independent of government in a meaningful way.
The announcement last week that the Government plans to introduce a secret ballot for the election of the ceann comhairle is a tacit acknowledgment the Government has under-delivered on political reform in its five years in office.
During the 2011 election there was broad acknowledgment that the poor policies that led to the economic crash in 2008 were in part due to pathologies in the Irish political system. All parties devoted a significant amount of space to the issue of political reform in their manifestos.
In the five years since then, the Government expended much more energy on the urgent issue of deficit reduction. While it delivered some political reforms, often they were designed to give the appearance of reform, rather than reforms that could have a real impact.
A further difficulty is that many “reforms” were introduced without any real analysis of the core weaknesses in the Irish political system. The problems that pervade the system are not unique to Ireland and Ireland still has much that is good about it. But there is a real problem in that the Dáil cannot properly provide oversight of government and deliver accountability. The government effectively controls the Dáil. In theory, it is meant to be the other way around.
We argue there are a number of seemingly small changes that in combination would rebalance the relationship between the government and the Dáil. These can have a major impact on how Irish politics operates. None of them would require constitutional change and they could be delivered quickly – in the first 100 days of the 32nd Dáil.
The announcement by Government that it will make the changes needed to provide for the election of the ceann comhairle by secret ballot is a good idea because, if done properly, it can make the ceann comhairle independent of government in a meaningful way. At the moment the position is little more than a sinecure for a TD disappointed not to be appointed to higher office. The taoiseach of the day effectively chooses someone, and government backbenchers dutifully elect the person.
By moving to secret ballot we should see TDs from all parties compete for the office. Party leaders will not be able to dictate how TDs vote and so the candidates for ceann comhairle will need to have some appeal to TDs. On its own, this is not enough. The position must be transformed into a powerhouse whose job is to defend the interests of the Dáil, while facilitating the government in delivering its agenda. It must become a real job, with real powers worthy of its constitutional status.
It is reasonable the government should be able to have space to proceed with its agenda, but a Dáil management committee chaired by a powerful ceann comhairle could put an end to a government using its Dáil majority to guillotine important legislation, as happened with the Asylum Bill last month.
The procedures of the Dáil are excessively restrictive, often impeding meaningful debate, and it is still too easy for a minister to use the rules of debate to evade interrogation. Committees are often a place for parliament to do real work, but again procedures make it hard for this to work in the Irish case. They are too big, with TDs serving on too many committees simultaneously.
TDs frequently have to suspend committee work to vote in the Dáil chamber, making it hard to have a productive meeting. Government controls the chairs of most committees, making them less independent than they should be.
We have identified a large number of small changes (see www.Smaointe.org) that can empower the Dáil to become a powerful body to oversee the work of government and hold it to account.