The experience of the last few years has been a salutary lesson for those wanting to see real change to how politics operates in this country - and nowhere more so than on the issue of Dáil reform.
Five years ago we had one of the weakest parliaments in Europe; five years later we still do.
The lessons from the banking inquiry are that it is much cheaper to set up good accountability and oversight procedures in advance of making policy than it is clean up the mess left by bad policy.
If true Dáil reform is ever going to happen it will have to be implemented immediately; government parties tend to hide behind the excuse of needing more time for reflection, for committees to ponder the details, for legislation to be drafted. Dáil reforms need to be practical, quickly implemented, and substantive.
Now that the main political parties have revealed their manifestos we can see just how seriously they are treating the issue of giving Ireland a parliament fit for purpose.
And the picture is quite mixed: People Before Profit and the Greens pay little if any attention to Dáil reform; the Sinn Féin manifesto is also pretty light – its main proposal for a citizens’ assembly to consider Dáil reform, while laudable, ignores the fact that the constitutional convention has already made many recommendations.
Parties with more complete sets of proposals on Dáil reform include Fine Gael, Labour and the Social Democrats; Renua and Fianna Fáil’s offerings are a bit thinner. (For more details of our audit of the parties’ manifestos see www.smaointe.org.)
Proposals that merit consideration but run the usual risk of prevarication, include the proposals by Fine Gael and Labour for referendums to give constitutional recognition to the office of the Ceann Comhairle and to Oireachtas committees (though it’s not clear how this would strengthen their overall position), Renua’s call for a constitutional reform to require TDs to prioritise national issues (we are sceptical that any mechanism to give effect to this would be workable), or the Social Democrats’ plans for local government reforms to reduce constituency demands on TDs (which may have the intended effect).
What proposals are the parties offering that can be rolled out at the start of the 32nd Dáil term? There are a number of practical measures on offer.
The Social Democrats and Sinn Féin propose that the Dáil should have more say over its own agenda through a revamped role for the whips’ meeting (Sinn Féin) or a new business committee operating in public (Social Democrats).
They could go further by giving the Ceann Comhairle a role in chairing the committee.
There is common ground among a number of parties that specific measures should be made to reduce the use of guillotines, with Fine Gael offering the most practical measure in that regard by proposing clearer legislative timelines in the Dáil agenda.
Both Fine Gael and the Social Democrats call for committees to be engaged much earlier in the drafting stage of legislation; and both also want committees to be involved in post-enactment scrutiny of legislative impact.
Relaxing the whip
There’s a lot of talk of relaxing the whip but little by way of practical measures, with the exception of the Social Democrats and the Greens who argue that State funding of parliamentary parties should be tied to the TDs not their parties – one useful means of weakening the hold of party whips over recalcitrant TDs.
Indeed it must be remembered that the whip structure and party discipline is entirely at the discretion of parties and could be changed by them individually at any time.
Several parties propose a root and branch review of Dáil standing orders – something that is long overdue.
Labour’s proposal that this should be the task of a new Dáil reform committee is a good place to begin.
Last time reform was postponed because the crisis took priority. No such excuse exists this time.
Ironically, even with no formal reform we might still see a much strengthened Dáil as it’s now likely we’ll have a minority government. In that context the government can’t ignore the Dáil and the 32nd Dáil should insist on institutionalising its advantage.
David Farrell (UCD), Eoin O’Malley (DCU), Jane Suiter (DCU) and Theresa Reidy (UCC) recently launched their 100 Days campaign to push political reform to the top of the parties’ agendas