Reforms are driven by optics

The Dáil debated possible new Dáil reforms yesterday. The reforms introduced by the Chief Whip Paul Kehoe are to include:

The introduction of Topical Issue Debates to replace the current Adjournment Debates
Extra Dáil sitting days – on the first Friday of every month – to provide time for TDs to introduce their own Bills
Providing for Leaders Questions to be taken by the Tánaiste on Thursdays
A procedure to allow Dáil Deputies raise issues regarding replies to Parliamentary Questions
The Dáil commencing earlier on Tuesdays at 2pm
Reform of the Standing Order 32 procedures for raising urgent issues
Establishing a time limit for the Order of Business
Changes to Taoiseach’s PQs on Tuesdays and Wednesdays

These come in addition to the Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2011 which will reduce the number of TDs,  have all by-elections held within six months of the vacancy arising and lower the caps on spending for the presidential election campaigns.

While many of these are worthy, one is left wondering if they will solve the real problems in the political system. The Dáil being allowed to debate a bit more won’t matter much when most TDs still don’t have the incentive to challenge the government. Nothing here will stop the government’s control of Dáil time, exemplified by an interaction in yesterday’s debate.


There is little here that will put pressure on government, and many of the reforms, particularly the desire to reduce the number of TDs appear to be populists notions. There are no arguments why the number of TDs should be reduced, and certainly none informed by evidence. I have no problem reducing their number if the reason is more than saving (in the scheme of things) a minuscule amount of money.

The desire to be seen to save money in the Dáil and government might be actively hindering good government. So junior ministers are no longer allowed hire special advisers. While special advisers were often glorified bag carriers, some offered an alternative point of view to that emanating from the civil service and so they at least enabled a plurality of views and some source of debate in government. Again, we see ‘reforms’ for the sake of being seen to save money.

The government would be better placed if it were to have a single minister with responsibility for all political reforms, and it set out the plan of how the reforms will link together and what the political system will look like afterward.

9 thoughts on “Reforms are driven by optics

      • Although our whip system seems a lot stricter in its implementation than in UK for e.g. On Councils apparently whip can’t be imposed when councillors exercising a quasi judicial function, for e.g. in relation to planning matters. Wonder if same would apply in respect of new Investigations Committee?

      • Probably a bad idea to do away with whip entirely.

        The only workable idea I’ve ever heard of that might abolish the whip system entirely would be to have all parliamentary votes be by secret ballot. But TD accountability would then go out the window. I guess one could set up an electronic voting system in the Dáil that would keep all votes secret for almost all of the Dáil term, but the entire voting record of TDs would then be publicly released in the run up to an election. That would restore a type of accountability to the electorate I guess. But this whole scheme still seems like a terrible idea to me.

        The whip system certainly could be weakened though. It definitely seems stronger here even relative to the UK (Elaine Byrne actually had an interesting link recently to some stats on backbench rebellions in the UK, they’re definitely less common here).

        And I don’t understood why there aren’t finer gradations in the strength of the whip here. In the UK Commons there are free votes, and even when the whip is applied there are one-line, two-line and three-line whips. Seems plain ridiculous that almost every single vote in the Dáil, no matter how minor, has what’s effectively a three line whip applied. What’s the point of the Dáil in such a setup? No wonder there’s little genuine debate.

        The executive uses various carrots/sticks to whip backbenchers into line, e.g. patronage (quango/state board positions), party candidate selection, pork/clientilism, parliamentary jobs/pay, the threat of Dáil dissolution. Curbing these could the whip to a degree. I’ve probably bored people here on this topic previously. But just to take what’s perhaps the single most important factor: parliamentary pay/jobs, then what would be termed the “payroll vote” in the UK has gradually been creeping upwards here too over the past few decades. The payroll vote in the UK Commons would now be about 150 out of 650 members. This would include about 100 ministers of various ranks (including 23 full cabinet ministers) and about 50 parliamentary private secretaries (unpaid, but first rung of the promotion ladder to hopefully being a minister). All would expected to fully obey all whips. A couple of decades ago the payroll vote in the Uk might only have been about 100 members. Similarly the number of TDs with government appointed parliamentary jobs has also increased over the years. The cabinet itself has gotten bigger several times since independence, going from 7 to 12 under the Free State constitution, settling on a maximum of 15 under De Valera’s constitution. The number of second rank junior ministers (or previously parliamentary secretaries) has also swelled, 7 to 10 to 12 to 15 to 20 (admittedly back to 15 now). Plus committee chairs (for which an allowance is paid) and vice-chairs (now unpaid, perhaps the equivalent of being a PPS in the UK) would also come under the payroll vote here (e.g. Denis Naughten being forced to give up his committee chair for breaking the whip). Almost all of the these (bar 2 or 3 for the opposition) are given to government TDs. Still probably 25 chairs/vice-chairs given to government TDs. So total “payroll vote” in the Dáil would be 15 (cabinet) + 15 (junior ministers) + 25 (government committee positions) = 55. That’s 2/3 of the way towards a Dáil majority! At least that’s an improvement since under Bertie, where with allowances for convenors and sub-committee chairs, the payroll vote must have been close to 100% of government backbench TDs!

        The simple step of electing committee chairs/vice-chairs via a secret ballot of the entire Dáil would hugely reduce the “payroll vote” here (55 down to 30). Coupled with backbencher control of committee composition this would also have the benefit of helping committees be genuinely far more independent of government.

  1. Only thing I can think of that is a real benefit of a small chamber is a tighter fiscal policy. Smaller parliaments leads to smaller parish pump/pork spending, but as Ireland doesn’t have a particularly large parliament and if they abolish the Seanad then I doubt there would be any impact of less TD’s on fiscal policy.

  2. There does seem to be a big preoccupation with cost savings in these reform plans. All that does have its place, but one certainly would have to wonder what fundamentally is being changed here. To keep things in perspective, the total cost of the quango sector dwarfs the cost of running the Oireachtas. I suspect some of the reason for the huge growth in this sector is because of the laxer controls and supervision relative to the civil service. Appointments to the boards of these entities are by ministerial order (with virtually no scrutiny). It’s much easier to install a friend or supporter in such a position. One would have to wonder if the expansion in this sector would have been far less if more stringent controls and scrutiny had been put in place.

    On the reconfiguration of the Dáil committees, there has indeed been a significant cut in the number of committees. Coupled with the pruning back in committee expenses/allowances by the last government (allowances for vice-chairs, sub-committee chairs and convenor positions being abolished, and allowances for committee chairs being halved) this will lead to some cost savings. But I do notice that a whole raft of subcommittees have now been created. We now have large departmental committees covering up to three departments each. But there now will be a separate sub-committee individually covering each department. So 12 departmental sub-committees have been created, with 17 Dáil sub-committees in total. One would have to wonder how much of a functional difference all this really will make.

    There are quite a few proposed Dáil procedural reforms, but nothing deep or earth-shattering. For example, the proposed 10 minute rule might make some kind of difference for private members’ bills. We seem to have a near zero tradition of this in the Oireachtas. Successful private members’ bills are extremely rare (a recent successful bill by Fearghal Quinn from the Seanad comes to mind as one of the few examples). In contrast, the UK House of Commons has a strong tradition of private members’ bills. A nice summary of stats for successful bills can be found at . Since 1945, almost 700 such bills have been passed in the UK (averaging over 10 a year). There are four different procedural routes for a backbencher to try to get such a bill passed (see for a summary). Their 10 minute rule is actually the least successful route there. And if the Seanad is abolished, what in theory should be another viable route for private members’ bills will also vanish. So I guess we’ll be swapping the Seanad route for a one day a month “10 minute rule” path.

    As has been mentioned here before, the UK parliament has wrested back, in recent years, some degree of control over parliamentary business from the executive. Approximately a day a week of parliamentary business is allocated to backbenchers when parliament is sitting. A new innovation is that this time is now controlled by a backbencher business committee (which consists of backbenchers, both government and opposition, who have been elected by secret ballot by the backbenchers themselves). And the current UK coalition government proposes to create a new House Business Committee during this term which will continue this process of giving back more control of house business to parliament. Recent UK parliamentary procedural reforms go deeper than anything than has been proposed here. IMO Tony Wright’s “Rebuilding the House” Commons reform report would be a good template for some more meaningful Dáil reforms here.

  3. I am very disappointed to find the continual appeals to UK custom and practice in discussions on our way of governing ourselves.

    in the mid 1980s, the late Prof. John Kelly (former AG, Minister, TD) a constitutional expert, oberserved
    “Ireland’s political and official rulers have largely behaved like a crew of maintenance engineers, just keeping a lot of old British structures and plant ticking over.”

    For my part, I will continue to research and present options form other smaller Western-style democracies in addition to the UK and larger countries – as I did here from p. 57 and ff

    Click to access Towards_a_Second_Republic.pdf

    “the key issues remain going beyond some short term measures to design, implement and use a series of checks and balances to
    limit the scope for excess by the powerful, whether they be public or private, elected or appointed in order to ;
    · ensure competence and moderation in government
    · overcome inertia at government level, both national and local;
    so that our constitution is a framework for a free government that limits, restrains and allows for the exercise of political power, which we as citizens of a Republic own.

    We need to ensure that our way of governing ourselves has both
    · the means to be successful for the common good with increased democratic accountability
    · the capacity and of adapting to the changes that constantly descend upon it.

    We citizens need to ensure that the state’s decision making-processes are structured and disciplined. We need to copper fasten new ways of governing ourselves to avoid the kind of
    muddling through, inertia, lack of foresight, and reversal that marks previous efforts at reform.
    To ensure this, I am firmly convinced that we need to embed both
    · Swedish style Freedom of Information
    · Swiss style direct democracy
    into our constitution.

    However, these steps will take longer to research, consider and implement. For expediency we must take those steps which we can, just to get us started on political and institutional reform. Only
    thus can our skills and energies open the paths to sustainable standards of living and greater justice for all who wish to live and work here.”

    I remain to be convinced that the state class (elected politicians, senior public servants in all sector, many of those private sector businesses depending on state expenditure eg. construction, consultants, professional service providers, media depending on government advertising) actually get the scale of the failure of our way of governing ourselves.

    I welcome the current government reforms, in so far as they recognise the need to do thing differently – very differently from the past.

    • @Donal
      Apologies for any overemphasis on my part on UK institutions. Have been looking at the UK system a lot lately myself, as might be obvious, hence perhaps my over-enthusiasm! Very much agree with you on Swiss style direct democracy. IMO having a citizens’ initiative mechanism in our constitution would be easily the single most desirable reform we could make. This would give the opportunity to the people themselves to reform our constitution gradually in a very organic way. If I had the chance to make radical political reforms, then my ideal system would borrow large elements of the Swiss setup. The UK certainly wouldn’t be my primary model. And radical reform is what we need I believe.

      But I’m pessimistic about getting radical reform. Most likely we’ll get cosmetic reform (e.g. mostly optics as argued in the OP, e.g. minor tinkering with Dáil size, committee reconfiguration: how we’ve merged many departmental Dáil committees and instead created a raft of new department sub-committees instead). If reform is going to be only minor, then the UK, I feel, is still a relevant template. Your quote above “Ireland’s political and official rulers have largely behaved like a crew of maintenance engineers, just keeping a lot of old British structures and plant ticking over.” I find very accurate. The situation is probably even worse than that. We not merely copied UK institutions but copied them badly and have done little to reform them since independence. I’m not sure we should have copied UK institutions in the first place. An unambitious and unimaginative and narrow approach to reform is to simply look across the water and see what works better there and adapt some of their procedural reforms to here. Personally, I feel that would be far short of what we really need. But it would still be far more than what has been proposed here so far. Pessimistic thinking I know: exploring what might be second-best rather than third-best!

  4. “These come in addition to the Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2011 which will reduce the number of TDs, ”

    It will be very interesting to see what actually happens to this Bill and how it is applied, in practice.

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