Parliament must lead and ask serious questions of itself

This is a truncated version of the speech delivered by Dr Maurice Manning at the launch of The Houses of The Oireachtas on 25 November 2010

The Irish Parliament is one of the oldest continuously surviving parliaments in the world. Aside from its earliest years, its legitimacy has never been seriously questioned; it has provided stable government and generally has done most of the things that are traditionally expected of a parliament. But when I say the Oireachtas has justified most of the traditional expectations of a parliament, a question immediately arises. Put simply, it is the fact that most of our other major traditional institutions have been found seriously wanting in the events leading up to the present great crisis. All have been subject to searching and at times devastating scrutiny. All have had to undergo external scrutiny and all have been obliged to change. This has not happened in the case of the Houses of the Oireachtas. There are proposals for change in the air, and they are welcome. But there has been no overall, coherent analysis of what it is we have a right to expect of a modern, effective parliament in a complex, indeed fragile society in this time of national crisis. The Oireachtas was not an effective actor in the period leading up to the crisis. There was little serious attempt to engage with the emerging issues and at times the Oireachtas was more of a cheerleader than serious watchdog. There are two major inherited characteristics of our parliament. The first is the dominance of the Executive. It started with the Civil War, was strengthened by long years of one-party rule and quickly became the norm. The second characteristic is a direct consequence of this – parliament accepted its subordinate status and has never asserted its own authority or developed its own distinctive personality. All, or most of its current shortcomings stem from this fact and it should be at the heart of any meaningful parliamentary reform. It is in the very nature of parliament that reform should be permanently on the agenda. Parliaments everywhere have to fight for their share of the action, have to adapt to developments in technology, to new expectations and new problems. But the fundamentals of parliament remain the same – to provide a government, to keep that government accountable, to ensure that the great issues are debated, legislation properly scrutinised and that all voices are heard. It is how these things are done that counts. It is not the purpose of this book to be prescriptive. The book is a uniquely comprehensive and objective study of all aspects of our parliament since its foundation but it should be a starting point for those who want to see parliament strengthened, focussed and given its central and proper role as the most important of all our political institutions. The publication of this book coincides with the greatest crisis in our history. Public confidence in many of our institutions is shattered. The only way that confidence can be restored will be through the Oireachtas leading this process. Parliament has to be at the heart of change, to be its driving force. But it cannot expect others to follow where it does not itself lead and does not show itself willing to ask serious questions about itself and our underlying political culture. There is one final point I would make about reform. The process of reform should be open and should have external input. It will lack all credibility if left to politicians alone and will almost certainly be sidelined along the way. A meaningful reform process must have not just a strong external component but also a verifiable implementation strategy. The public are disaffected and will have to be persuaded of the seriousness and sincerity of the entir

6 thoughts on “Parliament must lead and ask serious questions of itself

  1. All great stuff I am sure, but, right on cue, to highlight the powerlessness and irrelevance of the Dail we have this.

    To satiate its overwhelming tribal instinct to damage FG, FF has decided to compel the Dail to make the formal, historic and resonant decision to kow-tow to the oversight of foreign powers – whose oversight, apparently, was not invited by the Government (and certainly not by the Dail).

  2. It would be a good service on the part of whoever posted this thread to do two other things
    1) give the contents of the book – the IPA website to which is linked does nothing more that give the cover. From this one infers that the book is edited and this implies contributions. Who are they? Do we have to pay €30 to find out?
    2) Why not do a full review of the book? This is the least that the academic political scientists could provide on a book which seems interesting and may even be informative.

    • The book is divided into 4 parts:
      1. Understanding the HOuses
      2.The administration of the Oireachtas
      3.Parliamentary Business in the Dáil and Seanad
      4. The changing role of PArliament and parliamentary politics.

      Apart from the Editors, MAnning and MacCarthaigh, Contributors include Michael D Higgins, Michael Gallagher, PAtricia Conlan UL,Shane MArtin,DCU, John O’Dowd UCD, KEvin Rafter (Journalist), Liam Weeks UCC,
      Kieran Coughlan(Oireachtas), MAdelaine Dennison (Librarian), HElen Gunn (oireachtas), Philip HAmmel

  3. A simple but fundamental reform, would be for the Government to be elected directly by the Dail on a PR system. The current system, whereby the Dail only elects the Taoiseach, who then has the power to appoint the Government, centralises power in the hands of one deputy at the expense of the wider Dail. The result is that Ministers are only appointed from half of the Deputies in the house, and are permanently beholden to their Taoiseach. With the power to appoint or remove the Government, the Taoiseach dominates the legislature and it has no real power to hold him/her to account.

    If however, the Government was elected on PR, this would allow for opposition deputies to be in office, it would remove the requirement for partisan politics as Government stability would not be dependent on party loyalty. It would even allow bakbenchers to make up their own mind if they supported a policy or not as the freshly empowered legislature would not be so easily controlled by the whips.

    This would not necessarily require a referendum, as the constitution does not lay down in what manner Dail Eireann is to choose the Government. It does provide that the Taoiseach can remove a Minister under 28-9-4, but a commitment to refrain from using this power would be enough to allow this system work without a referendum. I would like to see it proceed on a trial basis at least.

  4. A key problem is that the Taoiseach has too much power over ordinary Deputies and they in turn have relatively little power over him/her. As the person who appoints the Government, the Taoiseach has total control over all actions of the State and has personal and electoral goodies to supply or deny to all Deputies. Therefore, the Dail is permanently in his/her pocket and it has proven almost impossible to remove Taoisigh when their suitability is questioned. Nor is it currently possible for Govt. backbenchers to question Govt. policy without perceived treachery to their party’s cause. Finally, the opposition, who do at least represent a large proportion of the population, have zero influence over govt. policy and their supporters are effectively disenfranchised.

    I would rather see a more corporate dail, where the Govt. is elected on a PR system, where there would be no official opposition, but where all Deputies outside the Govt. would be able to speak out against Govt. policy if they disagreed with it, without being held as traitors to their tribe.

    This would be more representative, more deliberative, less regimented and above all would hold the Government to proper account by the Dail.

  5. For more on Dail reform, see my site, What I’m proposing is 60% majority voting, with the cabinet appointed by the leader of the largest party. Ministers need not be TD’s. All in all, it could provide more consensual, more democratic politics, with the power of the executive reduced, and the party whip system relaxed.

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