Is the only truly new Dáil an independent Dáil ?

Liam Weeks*

Reading the calls for reform from afar, there seems to be one overarching theme: a desire to improve the calibre of parliamentarians.

To date, most of these calls have been misguided as many from outside the political science community persist with the notion of electoral reform as a panacea that will transform the quality of our politicians overnight.

It doesn’t matter what type of electoral system is used. The quality parliamentarians (although I have yet to see the evidence that bringing in a load of experts will improve the Dáil: how did Martin O’Donoghue fare as Minister for Economic Planning and Development in the 1970s?) that John Rogers and other speak of are simply not interested in running for party political office. And who can blame them?

This is one of the problems with party democracy. While political parties are deemed necessary for stable parliamentary democracy, their grip on power lessens the openness of the political system. For example, in academic circles, it is often said that parties are the gatekeepers to political office. Since they select candidates, and since nearly all candidates elected are party nominees, parties decide the composition of parliament, not the people.

If we want more business people, more professionals, more ‘experts’ in parliament, then we need to reform the candidate selection procedure within parties. Parties may well reply that they are fit to pick whomsoever they wish and in whatever way they wish. They may be right, but if party funding was linked to reform, then we could see wholesale change.  For example, why not attempt the American primary system, which in theory allows anyone to contest the party nomination. The Conservative party in the UK experimented with this in some constituencies for the 2010 general election.

The hopes of some that the forthcoming election will act like the rivers Alpheus and Peneus by cleaning out the filthy Augean stable that is the Dáil is wildly overoptimistic.  A perusal of the party candidates already selected reveals that it’s a case of ‘same old, same old’.  The main parties persist with picking candidates from the usual crop of councillors and dynasties. I thus see little reason why we should expect the new Dáil to be any different than its predecessors.

However, suppose for argument’s sake that a new Dáil with new faces and new ideas will change things for the better, how can such individuals be elected? Since these individuals are either not interested in running for a party, or the parties (I refer to the 3 main parties of FF, FG and Labour) are not interested in their candidacy, the only option for change seems to lie with independent candidates.

Is there a danger in this? Do we really want a parliament of 166 Jackie Healy-Raes and Michael Lowrys? The short answer is we already do. There is a lot of misplaced hyperbole about the influence of independents on governments’ redistributive power. National policy gets distorted by the presence of ministers in a constituency, not independents. Only a few independents have managed to hold the balance of power and have a few barrels of pork come their way. There are thirty ministers from parties doing so after every election.

Michael Lowry and Jackie Healy Rae come from a party background, so the election of similar type gene-pool independents would not constitute any real change. Instead, I am referring to independents who would represent a new voice in the parliament. This could constitute individuals such as David McWilliams, Fr. Sean Healy of CORI, perhaps even some academics, such as Morgan Kelly or Maureen Gaffney. The value of these types of independents can already be seen in the Seanad, where the likes of Shane Ross, David Norris and Joe O’Toole have been the most important contributors to debate in either of the two houses.

I am not advocating the need for more independents in the Dáil, nor that they would change anything. However, the reality is that on the basis of the parties’ selection to date, the only case for a truly different Dáil lies down the independent route. Whether suitable candidates are willing to run as independents, whether the electorate are willing to vote for them and whether this is a desirable scenario is another matter (which I have discussed in a previous post).

There seems to be an impression amongst the public that the next election will give them the opportunity to vote in the politicians they want and kick out those they don’t. The reality is that voters can only pick from the menu of candidates that they’re offered. They can neither ask for a different menu nor switch venue. Because the parties seem to be sticking with their tried and tested options, those who want to try something new are dependent on the emergence of suitable independents.

To those who decry a future independents’ day, more thought should be given to what this says about a system in which the non-party alternative is the only option for genuine change.

*Liam Weeks is an IRCHSS CARA Fellow at Macquarie University, Sydney. His research is funded by the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences with co-funding from the European Commission.

20 thoughts on “Is the only truly new Dáil an independent Dáil ?

  1. We need leaders , period.
    Born leaders who will commence by rejecting the bank guarantee to commence by publicly burning down the HQ of Anglo Irish Bank at Stephens Green, Dublin.

    Replacing Fianna Fail by similar will achieve nothing only further down into the mire.

    • No we don’t need leaders. We’ve always had leaders, usually Fianna Fail ones. Bertie was a charismatic leader, the guy next door you’d have a beer with who also knew how to handle all that tricky economy stuff (even though he didn’t have a bank a/c when he was MOF).

      We don’t need leaders. What we need is for people to somehow become participants in democracy outside of “there’s a problem, eww it smells, you deal with it”.

      Even participation at local level in local government would be a good start.

  2. “For example, why not attempt the American primary system, which in theory allows anyone to contest the party nomination. The Conservative party in the UK experimented with this in some constituencies for the 2010 general election.”

    The cost of running primaries is quite high and considerably more that most parties could fund and it would be hard to imagine the electorate wanting to fund another election day just so parties could pick candidates in the current climate. There is also the problem of setting primary dates without having fixed term elections.

    PR-STV actually allows for instant primaries on election day, the problem for the political parties is that they can’t use it as such because the leakage of votes due to transfers will ultimately cost them seats. Running fewer candidates increases the likelihood of getting more seats even while it reduces choice. My suggestion of a mop-up system using the existing PR-STV system would encourage more choice so that we could have a cost effective instant primary while not costing the political parties proportionality in their total return of seats. But it appears to be an unappealing idea to the contributors here for reasons no one is willing to detail.

  3. @Liam Weeks,

    Many thanks for this post. You raise some fundamental questions such as, for example, what is the Dail for? My view, in very simple terms, is that it empowers and elects a government from its members, holds this government to account for its executive actions, scrutinises/amends/rejects government policy proposals in legislative form prior to enactment and ensures government responds to matters of public concern.

    In most mature, developed democracies employing the ‘government in parliament’ system this has led to a process and an issue. The process involves the emrrgence of parliamentary blocs (comprised of a single faction or combination of factions) competing to elect the government. The issue is the calibre of the members from each bloc being advanced to form a government with one group being subsequently elected/appointed to govern – and a subsidiary issue (but probably more important in the context of your post) is the calibre of the members in general (and the powers and resources they have at their disposal) to hold this government to account.

    In terms of competing blocs Ireland has not yet reached the maturity of other established democracies where these blocs are primarily differentiated by the balance between the role of the state and the role of citizens (whether individually or collectively, in associations or fims or via market mechanisms). (Polling results indicate that this divide may be emerging among the electorate, but the most likely next governing combination will be comprised of two factions that sit on opposite sides of this divide in most mature developed democracies – and in the European Parliament.) Ireland has some way to go in this respect.

    As to calibre and capability we have no choice but to rely on the democratic system producing members of vision and politcial judgement capable of governing. (There are very few limits on the amount and nature of professional advice and support they can secure.) But when it comes to non-governing members of parliament the focus has to be on the powers and resources they command and the procedures they employ.

    And again, in very simple terms, this means that the Dail agrees the Order of Business with Government (not imposed by the Government whips) and that Committees have the powers and resources to retain the expertise required to scrutinise government proposals effectively (with proper interrogation of ministers and their officials and scope for rebuttal and counter-rebuttal) and to enforce amendments.

    Governments, by virtue of their factional majorities in the Dail, will be able to vote through whatever they wish, but the additional scrutiny may constrain their ability to ram through wrong-headed policies. It won’t stop stupid policy decisions being made, but it should minimise their incidence and severity.

    A modest reform of this nature is likley to have a greater long-term beneficial impact than seeking to secure the election of philosopher-kings.

  4. There seems to be an impression amongst the public that the next election will give them the opportunity to vote in the politicians they want and kick out those they don’t.

    is there?

  5. There are three main issues with the current political system: Firstly the quality of the members of the Dail (gombeenism, shysterism), secondly the inability of the executive to work in the national interest and not be influenced by local issues (clientelism & parish pumps), & thirdly the failings in local government (powerless). What this article and many others result in, is the reality that for real sustainable reform to take place, each of these issues need to be tackled together. As this article points out, the most desired reform of the Dail  – that be to make it more independent, will not facilitate better governance, as the more independent the current Dail becomes, the less chance there is of creating any kind of cohesive executive.

    In my opinion, the more independent, intelligent & articulate voices which enter Dail Eireann the better. We need to attract into our legislature a much higher calibre of people than we currently have. People whose only interest is the national interest – legislating, debating and commenting on the national issues of the day for our country. Roughly speaking what we therefore need to do is to broaden the current functions and make up of the Seanad and move it to the Dail!

    Much of the recent discussion around the abolition of the Seanad missed the fact that the Seanad actually currently offers a much more varied & independent forum for discussion & debate than Dail Eireann. Whilst it does also encompass the party whip system, it’s electoral/panel system means it has a much more varied population and it certainly shows more independence in its discussion. Ironically the type of articulate independent voices we would like to hear in Dail Eireann do exist to some extent in the Seanad – Fergal Quinn, David Norris, Shane Ross, Joe O’Toole amongst others.  Leaving aside Senator Ross and his recent decision to run for the next Dail, most of these articulate voices would not be prepared or interested to run for the Dail. I may be wrong but many other voices who we would all love to hear in Dail Eireann such as Elaine Byrne, Fintan O’Toole, David McWilliams, Morgan Kelly, etc would have little or no interest in such a move, but I would imagine could possibly be persuaded to enter the Seanad. There is something seriously wrong with a political system whereby intelligent voices in a country are only prepared to enter the chamber/house that in theory has the least influence. The reasoning behind this lack of interest is obvious, in that as the Dail is currently constructed, it would be a largely fruitless venture with little or no opportunity to speak or contribute towards the legislative process. Therefore we need a reform of the function and subsequently the procedures of the Dail to make it attractive to the type of people we would wish to see in it. I would like to see the Dail reformed as purely a house for presenting, formulating and debating legislation and matters of national importance exclusive of the executive. In order to change the make up of the house, I would like to see the election process changed to include a national election list as well as potentially inheriting elements of the panels used in Seanad elections. I would remove the formation of the executive from the Dail and establish an independently elected Executive President (as we mature politically, hopefully on a proper left/right ideological divide) free to form a competent cabinet from all sections of society (similar to USA, France, etc). The executive would still be answerable to the Dail who would have ultimate say on the passing of legislation.

    I believe this would give you a much more competent executive, free from the shackles of the parish pump and clientelism, and who’s only objectives are those of national interest. In addition we would have a much more independent and purposeful Dail. The final big reform would be to fully empower local government from a budgetary and decision making perspective.

    Whilst these are my proposals, I appreciate that everyone else has their own. They differ in varying degrees of substance, but they have the common trait of proposing radical reform of the Irish political system. The question is who can ever deliver on these ideals? The turkeys won’t vote for xmas.

    • Ian, it would be naive to assume that by simply replacing our current crop of mostly birthrite politicians in Dail Eireann, with ones of a more intellect background, could change anything. Remember the golden rule of politics, “power corrupts”. We need a complete revamp of our system. There is absolutely no point in just changing the faces, or even the calipar of faces. We have to produce our own form of government which falls more in line with that of the system that’s used in the USA. We also need accountability and a willingness to prosecute any politician who is willing to comppromise their thrust and participate in corruption.
      Local government is a whole other issue. Not only does it require reform, it requires a broader set of mechanisms which enable it to be the only form for dealing with local issues. As I said earlier, a complete overhaul is long overdue. The numbers of elected representatives would be my first area of revamp. Quality, not quantity.

      • Hi Sean,

        I can only assume that you didn’t read beyond the 2nd paragraph of my post as I never suggested that simply replacing the faces in The Dail was the answer to our woes. The topic is on an Independent Dail and I put forward an aspiration and a method towards creating one. I went on to say that critical to this is removing the executive from the Dail and like yourself mentioned the American system and the creation of an executive president.


    • Ian,
      I agree with most of your content. I also respect the views of people like, Shane Ross and David Mc Williams, I would love to see them in the Dail. However, if you scroll down a few posts, I have given some of my views on what I consider to be practical reforms that are desperately necessary to assert ourselves into to new and hopefully era of politices/government, that will exclude seats in Dail Eireann, via birthrite. We are on the same page, just like any healthy argument, we don’t necessarily share the same points of view. My hope is that people like you and I, can bring about the necessary changes by expressing our ideas.

  6. The national parliament should be capable of enacting well-based and timely legislation (including budgets) as well as overseeing the executive.

    The more that the election of members is dependent on individual contact within defined local or interest groups the less likely it is that they will have the required skills to perform these functions.

    In the last 14 years it has been absolutely clear that the promotion of local interests is the paramount concern of independent TDs. They have played no credible role in relation to legislation or oversight.

    Ultimately, the skills required to get elected do not overlap with the skills required to ensure that parliament is effective.

    Change the electoral system to a national one and get rid of joint membership of the executive and legislature.

    John Rodgers is a bad example of talent turned-off by the system because he has both been a highly influential player for 25 years and tried to run for Labour in Meath a while back.

  7. How would a ‘Dail of Independents’ function? Without being part of a party or technical group, how would these independents have any power or influence in the Dail? Also, I’m not sure where you’re getting the impression that the people think they’ll be able to elect the government they want in the next election. Vox Pops over the last few days consistently show that people have little confidence that there will be any substantial change. ‘They’re all the same’ seems to be the prevailing mantra of despair. Finally, no-one thinks ELECTORAL reform will be a panacea for all woes, but some believe that substantial, serious reform of our political system in its entirety is needed if we are ever to have the chance to elect the politicians we want, rather than select from the politicians we’re offered.

  8. I am an American, and well acquainted with the primary system that we use here. Primary elections and separation of powers do not lead to the election of any kind of people other than the sort that inhabit parliaments throughout the world; really, the only difference is that in the American system, Healy-Rae and Lowry would be members of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael instead of independents.

  9. Liam,
    You make a very good argument, it’s hard to disagree with much of what you are saying. I feel, to be totally honest, true democracy is a complete illusion. However, if we were to go totally down that road, it would give us little in terms of hope for our future and most importantly for the futures of the ones coming behind us, our children.
    I have argued for some time that our present system of government in Ireland, is long overdue a radical overhaul. Let’s begin by acting as a true Republic, where a democratically elected president is our Commander and Chief, ala, the United States. As we stand today, we basically have a system that derived directly from our neighbour, the Monarchy across the Irish Sea. Our President is a ceremonial position, basically replacing that of a Queen or King. Our two houses of government are exact replicas of the Houses of Commons and Lords. Then of course, we adopted the system of the whip in our political parties in order to keep dissidents in the ranks at bay.
    As a country who fought through several generations to segregate ourselves from colonialism, it’s astonishing how we were unable to invent our own unique form of government. We certainly could have taken a few cues from other established Republics, which existed at the time and had proven to work on a more equal basis for the common man.
    I feel that a government that consists of a large group of independents, could lead to chaos, it’s hard to imagine a chamber filled with Jackie Healy-Rae’s, Michael Lowery’s etc. The confusion with individual local issues would prove chaotic in the overall national interests. I believe, by removing the system of the whip, would be a more positive start to reclaiming a sense of democracy. I consider it ridiculous that a member of a political party could be severely punished by his or her own party, simply for voting in the Dail with their beliefs. Why not vote across party lines, if it is in the best interests of those to whom you represent? It works satisfactorily in the USA.
    I also believe that a bill that fails to make it through the Dail, should not give rise to a government collapse. This should simply allow for that particular bill, even a budget, get modified, so as it suits a majority within the chamber. A Dail term should run it’s full course, no matter what circumstances arise. I believe this would give rise to a greater stability within our house of government. It would also give us a stronger sense of democracy, for it would prevent the inevitable railroading of unscrupulous bills getting rubber stamped, simply because the government of the day had the numbers to easily carry it through the house.

    • “Why not vote across party lines, if it is in the best interests of those to whom you represent? It works satisfactorily in the USA.”

      Many of us Americans find it quite unsatisfactory. Congressmen holding up important legislation to get more money delivered to their constituency might be acting in the best interests of their constituents, but they are certainly not acting in the best interests of the nation.

      • Naveed, I have actually spent the greater part of the past thirty years living and working in the United States. In fact I carry dual citizenship. I am well aware of the difficulties that sometimes exists in congress. I am merely pointing out the differances between a government created for the purpose of running a Republic, to that of one designed around a Monarchy. I did not state that the USA had a perfect system, however I believe it is a model we could look at in the future for Ireland. We could actually better this system in the process.
        Mid term elections in the USA, do give the public the opportunity to cast aside those who do not work for the geater benifit of all of the people.

    • Good points! Yes, other than having a written constitution and PR-STV we basically just copied the Westminster system. Understandable even if not exactly very innovative. But we’ve allowed our institutions to degrade to the point that they’re not only copies at this stage, but very inferior ones at that. The UK has not been shy in reforming its own institutions. They’ve partially reformed their own second chamber already, and more reform is likely. They now have a supreme court. They’ve introduced devolved parliaments in some of their regions (the Northern Ireland assembly is a quite interesting attempt, with some innovative mechanisms, to set up institutions of government in a divided community). There has been plenty of reform of parliamentary procedures and the committee system. At the moment their coalition is contemplating an alternative electoral system and fixed term parliaments. They have a strong system of local government and police and the legal system are genuinely quite independent of Westminster politicians. Occasionally erring parliamentarians are actually sent to jail (which only just happened again recently). And financial crimes (inside trading etc.) are actually punished. Contrast that to the glacial inertia in our own system, and the lack of accountability of anybody for anything.

      Hopefully a new government may set about tackling these problems, and we may at the very least get some of the kinds of reforms that the British have just been quietly getting on with for the last ten to twenty years.

      On fixed term parliaments, I think there’s much to be said for them. Don’t think it would be possible to get rid of the whip within a parliamentary system. But should certainly be possible to weaken it or at least improve the dynamics of how it’s used. Fixed terms could help. A parliament with an absolutely fixed term would be too rigid IMO. But it would be easy to make parliamentary dissolutions harder. The Swedish setup is a very natural way of incentivizing fixed terms. Ordinary elections are held at fixed regular intervals. A government can indeed dissolve a parliament mid cycle in extraordinary elections, but that parliament can only last until the scheduled date for the next ordinary election. Hence extraordinary mid cycle elections are rare in Sweden.

      • Finbar, I acknowledge your points. I think however, you missed my main point, that was, we need to adapt a system that is more in line with a government assosiated with that of a Republic. The best example of that is to be found in the USA. They adapt this system at all levels of government, state local and fededal. A parliamentary style government, in my opinion, is a contradiction to the freedom that is associated with the fundamental principles of a republic. While I do look with interest, the accomplishments in the N. Ireland assembly that has produced an interesting level of success in a relatively short time, given the fact that it has managed to bridge two communities, that only recently, few if any, could imagine being capable of working together in cooperation for the good of all the people. I don’t know anything about the make up of the Sweedish parliamentary government, except to say it under a Monarchy system. When you look in a dictionary, the meaning of Monarchy, it meaning is, “rule by one person”. Not exactly a beleif I would subscribe to.
        My vision for Ireland is very much for the purpose of elimination of instability, ones i feel are associated with the uncertainties that are often created within our parliamentary system. These uncertainties are more common in times such as these tough economic climate exist, the likely event of no party having an overall majority to govern alone, is an almost certainty. I lived through the various government collapases of the early eighties. I was a very dull periodm made worse by a lack of stability in Leinister House.
        I also would like to see the introduction of term limits for elected officals. This could ease the public cynicism that exists, due to certain bloodlines that exist in today’s government that be traced all the way back to our first Dail.
        Most definitely, the co-relation that today exists between government and our legal/court system has helped to create a lot of mistrust of our judicial process. As we are sadly witnessing today in our financial system. You correctly state, accountability, simply is nonexistent in our sad world. In fact, we reward those who screwed up either through incompetence or otherwise, by sending them off into the sunset with a huge golden handshake/severance package! That in my humble opinion is a great crime. Together we must seek immediate changes.
        The silver lining in this dark cloud is, never before has a political climate existed, where we have been given an opportunity to seek real reform by peaceful means in our country. Lets all avail of this unique window for real change.

  10. @Sean
    Apologies if I glossed over your main point about republics. I’d definitely be against the principle of monarchy (even a figurehead one). But I still guess the basic aims of a true Republic would be “liberté, égalité, fraternité”. There are some nominal monarchies in the world with more of these qualities than some so-called republics. We certainly fall short on the “égalité” part (two tier health, legal and education systems come to mind), hence perhaps our sense of “fraternité” is a bit shaky also.

    The US has a very interesting and well constructed political system. I do lean towards thinking that a presidential or at least semi-presidential type system might be worth trying here. But I don’t think the advantages over parliamentary systems are that clear cut. There have some downsides too. And the US, in spite of its system of checks and balances, even if it seems to work well in terms of “liberté” and even “fraternité”, does seem to have its own problems with “égalité”. There’s much to learn from the US model, but am not sure it’s the ideal example either. But any system, republic or not, that gives more “liberté, égalité, fraternité” would be fine with me.

  11. There’s spomething a le1 Ray Burke a line in the sand type of thing with Willie O’Dea persnoal statement. This is deffo not the end of it. A lot of rumbling in the dail and no respect for his persnoal statement. He’s talking air. C’mon gormless; walk. Or cycle. Or whatever the fuck you do in a Prius.

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