Do TDs have little interest in being legislators?

Stephen Collins writing in last Saturday’s Irish Times he argues that one of the big commitments made by the Coalition during the February election and again after it took office was that it would reform the political system. He adds that while there have been some welcome changes to date, they represent a tinkering at the edges rather than fundamental reform.

He correctly identifies that at the heart of the matter is the fact that outside the 15 members of the Cabinet the rest of the Dáil has little or no role in the formulation of legislation. Until Oireachtas committees are given a real say in the drafting of legislation and the formulation of budgets, reform will be little more than skin deep.

Is he correct that given the predictable way the Opposition behaves in the Dáil, it is questionable whether most of our politicians really have any interest in being legislators?

Certainly simply having a cut in TD numbers and abolition of the Senate at the heart of the political reform agenda is insufficient. More should be done to increase the power of backbenchers and I would argue to involve the people in decision making between elections.

12 thoughts on “Do TDs have little interest in being legislators?

  1. How would you propose to involve ‘the people’ in making decisions?
    You haven’t added anything to the discussion other than to say you more or less agree with Stephen Collins.

  2. @Jane Suitor,

    I think you know the answer to the question you have posed in the title of this post. Not only do TDs have little or no interest in being legislators, but the system of governance is such that they have no incentive to be proper legislators – and every incentive not to be. And what is more it appears that most citizens are perfectly happy, once they elect a Taoiseach, to have them as constituency advocates and mini-ombudspersons and for those who elected the Taoiseach to stay in that camp. It also appears that most citizens would resent TDs exercising more restraint over government between elections as they might get ideas above their station.

    And as for involving people more in decision-making between elections, I would argue that Irish people are far more involved than those in most other developed democracies. They will use any opinion poll (cf previous post) or any popular vote that occurs between elections to make any discontent with the government clear. They may use TDs as conduits of any discontent, but if the TDs are in the government camp they will expect them to communicate the concerns but, in general, to stay loyal. They may also use the media or the various bodies representing sectional interests, but If a severe reprimand is warranted they will deliver it themselves in the polling booths. And they are very jealous – and rightly so – of their untrammelled right to deliver a reprimand when a majority deem it is required. This is perfectly consistent with their reluctance to empower TDs to exercise their delegated authority and discretion to impose any restraint on government. They may also, and justifiably, be concerned that the self-serving antics of the opposition factions might lead to consequences other than those they intended. A majority may be broadly happy with the government that has been elected, but some aspect of policy may offend. They might prefer that the government be encouraged to amend this rather be defeated in the Dail – so a more direct communication of their discontent might be more effective (and less liable to be manipulated).

    This is the system we have and it appears that most citizens are either happy with, or, at least, resigned to, this continuing battle of wits between government and voters. It has few of the attributes of most other better-governed polities; it leads to ineffective, inefficient and, occasionally, disastrous governance and condemns the economy to an unending cycle of booms and busts. But, hey, It’s Ireland. We’ll muddle through. The surplus labour will disappear eventually. The slowly mutating hierarchies of wealth, power and influence will remain broadly intact. “The needle returns to the start of the song and we’ll all sing along as before”.

  3. I think it’s more that the people who vote for TDs do not want TDs to be legislators.

    Why is anyone suprised that a group of almost elderly men who were elected in the 70s and 80s don’t have what it takes to deliver the scale of reform needed for 2011 and the next century.

    15 years waiting for office and there isn’t a single plan to reform how local government is carried out. The whole point of paying councillors was to make them a professional class who would lessen the need for TDs to be involving themselves in medical cards and passports etc but it has failed as all that happened if that councillors now get paid and are as useless as TDs.

    The best way to deliver reform is through transparency andl etting transparency take care of itself so if FOI was extended to everything (there is no legitimate reason for anything, including defence, in a country like Ireland, to be excluded from FOI.

    What stops is the mentality of those who have the power to make things change. Can anyone conceive of Kenny, Noonan, O’Reilly or Hogan signing off on something that would mean them being held to account for their decisions? They cannot intellectually do what it takes as they are men whose mindset was fixed decades ago.

    It’s no accident that Enda Kenny’s mission for FG was to make it as bland as possible to as many people as possible, not to try and educate Irish people or change them and given the laziness and ‘peasant’ mentality of so many Irish people it’s no wonder that tactic succeeded so well and FG romped home in February.

    Now the Irish people revert to their usual stance of kicking one lot out and then feeling guilty and wanting everyone else to take cuts but not them.

    Denial is by far the strongest human emotion and us Irish are an emotional people who love to wallow in denial especially about our own faults and our role in causing the mess we are in.

    Plus cá change.

    • @Desmond FitzGerald,

      I fear you are being far, far to harsh on Irish citizens. They took like fish to water to the evolving British democratic institutions in the beginning of the 18th century intially under the tutelage of O’Connell and then Butt, Parnell and so on. Irish people and their descendants probably did more than most to develop sound institutions and procedures of governance in the lands to which they originally emigrated.

      The enthusiasm with which most irish citizens seek to invigilate governments directly is a perfectly rational reaction. The 1937 Constitution laid the basis for the dominance of the executive over the legislature and all governments since have worked to progressively emasculate the Oireachtas. Citizens simply cannot rely on the Oireachtas to do the job of keeping government in check – and they have been hamstrung by the failure of two competing power blocs to emerge disputing the boundaries of the state and the roles of the state and markets.

      However, it is ineffective and inefficient and occasionally leads to disastrous governance. They simply don’t have the time or expertise to scrutinise government properly – that’s why most countries have parliaments to whom voters delegate their authority to do this – they are frequently misled by opinion-formers or by clever propagandising by vested interests. But, since any changes almost certainly will be initiated by government and most citizens quite rightly distrust their motives and intent, people seem resigned to the system they’ve got.

      This is well nigh impossible to change.

      • I disagree with you about the legacy of Irish parliamentarians – Tammy Hall is the personification of the cronyism within which ‘Irish’ politics was run in the US, Oz, New Zealand and in the UK.

        There are no great Irish parliamentarians that sprinig to mind? There were some who were far better than others ie O’Connell, Parnell etc but they were also cronies and on balance their personal flaws ended up causing more damage to the ’cause’ then their successes did in progressing it. But in the 20th century and in the current Dáil, is there even one person who can genuinely be called a parliamentarian? Sorry if that sounds cynical but I think the more we delude ourselves about ourselves the less likely future generations will have the type of country we claim to be aiming for.

        What exactly do all the backbench TDs do with their days? There are only about 35 TDs who are in government so why is it the remaining 130 odd seem incapable of splitting the work between them? Are they too busy pulling strokes to get passports for people too stupid to know their passports have run out when they book a trip or for people too lazy to fill in a form for medical cards?

        The pressure to keep wasting their line along those lines comes from the public – I don’t imagine a TD would choose to do such things if they felt they had an alternative option not to.

        I also don’t agree people can’t keep tabs on their government. Every single person in the country has some issue that affects them everyday be it a special needs family member or an elderly parent or a rural community or lack of a job etc and most Irish people are experts at knowing what they are ‘entitled to’ so I don’t think it’s beyond their ability to write to a TD or Minister or to educate themselves about a certain issue that is before the Oireachtas at any given time and to make an informed contribution to the debate.

        As long as people are allowed get away with ‘sure, they’re all the same’ then of course nothing changes but people shouldn’t be allowed pass the buck with that weak excuse and they should start taking some responsibility for the poor calibre of people they elect – and they should also stand for election themselves.

        There are thousands of people in every walk of life who would be perfect running councils – we all know them and it’s not actually that hard to get selected or that expenses for local elections and if enough people were to join a party and get involved they could change things.

        Things don’t change by moaning from the sideline or by pandering to people’s denial – in our lives how often do we stick our heads in the sand about some issue and when we finally face up to it the sky doesn’t fall in.

        We want proper cuts made to those at the top? But we never demand our government make such cuts.

        We want our debt reduced and the unfairness of bailing out professional bondholders stopped but we never demand our government do it.

        But God forbid you try take some of the medical card from the richest most pampered generation of Irish people who have ever lived and they take to the streets for that but where are all the pensioniers marching for their children and grandchildren’s future?

        I’m being harsh or cyinical for the sake of it but I do think there has to come a time when enough is enough and we turn the moaning and whinging back on people and ask them ‘what have you do done about ….’

        This comes back to personalities because unless we change our attitude to all sorts of things that have for decades been accepable in Ireland then all the reports and fine academic musings in the world don’t mean a jot.

  4. @Desmond,

    I frequently succumb to the anger and frustration you express, but I have slowly become resigned to a position of ‘informed despondency’. For a variety of historical, cultural and economic reasons, most Irish voters are either unwilling, or feel they are unable, to delegate sufficient authority to the TDs they elect to direct government in a manner that refects the popular will between general elections and that secures a balance between competiting interests – or advances one interest at the expense of another – in the broader public interest. They seem to prefer to deal with government directly and to use TDs to extract advantage and benefit from the ‘government machine’.

    That’s just the way it is. I naively thought that this latest bust, in a long cycle of largely self-generated boom and bust, might provoke sufficient popular discontent with the nature of governance that some genuine reform might be forced. But I was, oh so, wrong.

    In the modern era, and by historical standards, the majority are reasonably comfortable. The current system of governance ensures that, in straitened times, they will not be afflicted excessively. And, in so far as they are afflicted, government will do its best to ensure that the affliction is spread around, so that any narrow sectional interest able to exercise power and influence is not disproportionately afflicted compared to others. Minor, often cosmetic, reforms or adjustments will be implemented if pressure points are exposed that might trigger wider public discontent. Those who are afflicted at the bottom of the pile will be compelled/encouraged to reduce their demand on public resources by dying a little sooner or leaving. It was ever thus – and nothing really has changed.

    Nor could it be expected to change, because the forces resisting change are too deeply embedded and powerful. And those who could make the case for change are either conflicted or compromised – or resign themselves to vanity projects or the propagation of optical illusions. It’s much easier, safer and rewarding to go with the flow. Ireland can be quite brutal in the way it treats those who don’t.

  5. Wishing all here a Happy Xmas and New Year. This has proved an excellent forum – even if progress on political reform has been grindingly and frustratingly slow and patchy. I know I have, on occasion, been rude to and about our hosts and for that I apologise, but my intent always has been to broaden and deepen the focus. We are facing a huge challenge.

    Improved democratic governance is the sine qua non for future economic propserity and general public well-being. We can see the evidence in the better governed EU member-states – and even they recognise they fall short. Ireland has a long way to go.

  6. Being a legislator, unfortunately, has probably little bearing on a candidate’s chances of being elected to the Dáil. In this regard, I’m reminded of the late Peter Mair’s excellent talk only this year during the Magill Summer School and one of its themes of “amoral localism” ( ). I originally watched this streamed up on the Donegal County Council website. These talks are still available on that website. The role of our electoral system in leading to “amoral localism” is queried (though what might actually replace the current system is a far more open question). And the lack of strong local government in the country is bemoaned. Our TDs essentially have to take on the role of a local councillor.

    Even if TDs still actually have an interest in a legislative role (and I’d guess many do) there’s the problem that this tends to be the preserve of the cabinet in our system. And all this is self-reinforcing. The voters’ sense the average TD isn’t going to have much of a role in legislation anyway. Therefore why vote a candidate on this basis anyway? It does make a certain logical sense to vote for a good constituency worker (get that pothole or street light fixed) or will bring in the goodies to the constituency. This has probably led to a dearth of legislative talent in the Dáil, which has probably tended to monopolize the legislative process even more in the cabinet in a downward spiral over a long period.

    The government controls the Dáil in practice (and constitutional idea in article 28.4.1: that “the Government shall be responsible to Dáil Éireann” is little more than theory). We copied the UK system but seemingly little of the centuries of tradition and practice that appears to allow the House of Commons to impose some modicum of accountability on the UK government. At least it seems to function as something more than a passive rubber-stamp. I think most people hereabouts seem to be in agreement regarding some kind of greater separation between cabinet and Dáil, though there’s a wide spectrum of preference, from the Dáil merely reasserting itself to institutional Dáil reform right up to the full and clean separation of powers in a Presidential system.

    This all sounds fairly theoretical. But without the kind of accountability a functioning legislature can provide something else will step in and fill the vacuum, i.e. the special interests. I guess for a long time the Catholic Church (e.g. John Charles McQuaid and co.) was essentially the primary force that ran this country behind the scenes. The faces and special interests have dramatically changed since then but IMO the principle remains the same. I doubt the essence of how things work has really changed.

  7. A merry Christmas and happy new year to everyone on this blog. A thank you to the academic contributors who graciously volunteer their time on this blog, and also very much to all the other posters here who’ve made some very interesting and varied contributions in 2011.

    And 2012 could well prove to be eventful in terms of political reform. The government looks set to place most of its cards down on the table. Surely this much heralded constitutional convention will eventually kick off in the new year. And it looks like we’ll get a Seanad abolition referendum also. How cosmetic or otherwise the suite of proposals coming from this body will prove to be will become apparent.

    And even a Seanad abolition referendum should spark interesting debate in the media. There’s more than one way to skin a cat. Even Seanad abolition will force the government to make certain concrete choices. Currently the Seanad plays a role in the impeachment of judges, the President and the removal of comptroller generals. The natural choice would be the replace this requirement with a Dáil supermajority (perhaps 2/3? maybe 3/4 for presidential impeachment?). What about the little used provision that allows a Taoiseach to appoint up to two ministers from the Seanad (even from his own nominees) ? It would seem sensible to still allow a certain number of non-Dáil ministers. And, without the Seanad, article 27 would become an interesting provision. A third of TDs could petition the president on a bill of utmost national importance. If the president assented the bill would be put to a binding referendum. There would also be the possible obstacle of the supreme court. This provision could only be used for a bill “of such national importance that the will of the people thereon ought to be ascertained”. Will be most interesting to see what’s done with article 27. And there’s the timing of any abolition. The government’s primary rationale for Seanad abolition seems to be cost. I’ve yet to read any convincing argument why the Seanad couldn’t be summarily abolished at the same time as a referendum. The non-retrospectivity of ordinary legislation arises out of specific constitutional provisions. Surely the constitution is more fundamental that this? It would seem to me that an appropriately worded amendment could abolish the body there and then. If not, then the question is why not? (my own view of the body is that it’s close to useless as it’s currently structured, but would actually be in favour of a more powerful directly elected and reformed body).

    The choice to decouple constitutional convention and Seanad abolition IMO doesn’t bode well. Abolition isn’t a foregone conclusion. The case would be stronger in conjunction with a well thought out series of Dáil reforms. I suspect the plan is to have a fairly minimal abolition amendment wording with vague promises of Dáil reform to come in the convention. Maybe they want to have the fall-back of the convention in case abolition fails (maybe many secretly hope it will fail?).

    • @Finbar,

      I trust you have survived the Xmas festivities intact and a Happy New Year to you. You raise many interesting speculations and possibilities in this and your previous comment. But I suspect, either explicitly or impicitly, you have made the case that what we’ll see is quite an amount of ‘window-dressing’, a continued attempt to supend disbelief and the creation of optical illusions that will copper-fasten the status quo.

      It appears that a majority of voters are unwilling to grant any additional powers or resources to the Oireachtas while it is so firmly in the grip of Government. The rejection of the Abbeylara amendment provides some recent – if not totally conclusive – evidence of this. The problem is that a majority of Irish citizens seem to have no understanding of, have no experience of, or see no need for, a parliament that elects a government and that then subjects this government to effective scrutiny and restraint and holds it fully to account. This is the curse of many countries that are former colonies or have emerged from totalitarian control. There is more than enough evidence historically and around the world in the current era. This is by no means unique to Ireland.

      The first Dail, pictured on this blog, was formed to establish some form of governance separate and independent from the external imperial power. The idea that this Dail would establish a form of government, but then keep a tight rein on it, never entered the heads of voters or TDs at the time. And the idea seems to have entered vanishingly few heads since then.

      Despairing of the possibility of inserting this idea in people’s heads in theory, I retain a vague, but forlorn, hope that it might be possible to insert the idea in some people’s heads in practice – and to sustain and expand the basis for this practice. In another place, Colm McCarthy has contrasted Portugal’s approach to energy sector privatisation with that of Ireland. Since this is territory In which I have toiled for more than 25 years I threw in my tuppence worth:
      (apologies for the typos.)

      By any objective standard, what the Government has decided to implement is not only stupid, but will prove seriously economically damaging to the vast majority of citizens – by extending the economically damaging nonsense that has been perpetrated for the last dozen years. The process of enacting the legislation enabling what the Government has decided will provide an excellent practical opportunity for the Oireachtas to exercise some restraint on Government in the public interest and to force it to think again. The Oireachtas will be able to secure the people’s trust and confidence – to encourage them to grant it more powers and resources – only when it demonstrates its ability to exercise restraint on government in the public interest.

      Such an opportunity will emerge shortly in the new year on this important issue. I have no confidence the Oireachtas will take this opportunity. It is almost certain that it will be brow-beaten, and threatened and its members enticed, cajoled and placed under duress to fall in to line. For me, if the Oireachtas fails to rise to the occasion in this instance, there is absolutely no prospect of any meaningful political reform.

      • @Paul
        Survived the Christmas festivities. Hopefully will survive the new year’s ones also! 😉

        Yes, am not particularly hopeful we’ll get much more than window dressing arising out of the constitutional convention. One never knows though, but I suspect we’ll get exactly what’s laid out in the programme for government, which IMO doesn’t amount to all that much really. There’s some prospect I guess they might move a little beyond this on some worthy but low key issues.

        Don’t religiously follow , but it’s a very good blog and do have a glance there fairly often. Energy policy and and ESB privatization are interesting topics. A previous comment by Richard Tol from that blog jumped into my mind, which I tracked down again:

        “The future ESB will therefore face three demands, compared to two now. The workers will want well-paid jobs, as they had in the past. The political masters will want their pet projects, as they had in the past. And the private owners will want dividends. The consumer will have to pay for all of this.”

        I guess this is precisely the type of situation where our legislators should be asking serious questions of government (even though Labour’s particular mandate would be somewhat conflicted being also be to protect the wages of unionized workers such as in the ESB). The current policy of keeping the ESB integrated after partial privatization does appear to be the path of least resistance for the government. No one is agitating or kicking up a fuss for ordinary consumers, which I guess is what a parliament should be doing. In the absence of such resistance, it can’t be surprising that keeping the ECB/IMF and unions happy and keeping the body available as something of a slush fund for their own pet projects is the way that’s likely to be chosen, with the ordinary electricity consumer carrying the can.

  8. @Finbar,

    Thank you. Your “the ordinary electricity consumer carrying the can” sums it up in one. And quoting Richard Tol is apposite. He is departing Ireland’s shores because, among other reasons, I understand his outspokenness on these and other issues displeased the ‘powers-that-be’. Nor, I understand, were hints of xenophobia absent from the expressions of displeasure.

    It says a lot about how the public discourse in ireland is controlled and censored lest those who exercise and abuse economic and political power be discombobulated unncessarily. The lack of support from his fellow academics is also significant. It all just goes to confirm the sense of my being resigned to a position of ‘informed despondency’.

    Minister Howlin, given his ‘Reform’ brief, recently gave an indication of the extent of his ambition:

    It’s a bit like the Sun King inviting a few privileged peasants into the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. He, and those around him, have absolutely no idea of the extent of reform required.

    In the last hundred years there have been only two occasions when what might be described as revolutionary change occurred that was endorsed by popular consent. The power structure-changing intent of the 1916 Rising was endorsed after the event and the sea-change in economic policy initiated in the late 1950s secured FF considerable electoral dominance in the ’60s that reflected widespread popular consent – even though it altered significantly the economic power structures and had to overcome what Sean Lemass described as the ‘forces of resistance’. The fiscal retrenchment and economic reforms initiated in the late ’80s were simply a delayed remedy for the economic lunacy initiated in the years from 1977. And they did not nothing to alter the fundamental economic or political power structures.

    What is interesting is that both ‘revolutionary’ episodes were iniitated by people who were either appointed or self-appointed and were unelected, but who were responding to a deep-seated, but poorly articulated, popular desire, discontent or intent. There is no evidence that Irish people have the desire or ability to demand significant change in the economic or political power structures or to elect politicians to articulate this demand and to implement the required changes.

    There is no likelihood that this will be initiated by the current political classes – and certainly not by the current governing factions whose primary intent is to exercise and re-secure political power. Nor should we expect it from the upper reaches of the ‘government machine’ behind it – unlike the late 1950s. The academics, from whom one might expect some independent thought as a basis for action, are so beholden to, or embedded in, the government machines that are about as much use as a eunuch in a harem. And as for the media, don’t get me started…

    And so we will have the continued perpetuation of this optical illusion. It is not the equivalent of being forced to ‘live a lie’ as under the totalitarian communism against which the later Vaclev Havel rebelled – and over which he and his people eventually triumphed – by seeking ‘to live in truth’. But it has similarities as it requires a continued suspension of disbelief and the absorption of huge volumes of BS and results in huge and widespread personal, social and economic damage.

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