Post by Mary C. Murphy, University College Cork
The 2011 Irish general election produced an exceptionally high level of turnover of TDs. 76 or 45% of the current 166 Dáil members were never TDs before. This represents the first time since 1923 that a majority of those elected did not belong to the previous Dáil.
On 17 July the Ceann Comhairle and Chief Whip launched At Home in the New House? A Study of Ireland’s First-Time TDs. The report records demographic, attitudinal and behavioural information for the new TDs. It includes data on age, gender, party membership, professional background and political experience. It details new TDs’ knowledge of the Oireachtas; their working practices; perceptions of their role; their hopes and expectations; and, their perspectives on parliament.
The findings are not wholly surprising. The 2011 generation of new TDs are not markedly dissimilar from their longer-serving colleagues. For the most part, although new TDs enjoy their role, they are simultaneously frustrated by their institutional environment and the limits and impediments it imposes on them. Many would wish to enjoy more influence as backbenchers. A majority find the balance between constituency and parliamentary work very difficult. Initially, new members struggled with the mechanics and detail of a complex legislative process. For many, committee work is often satisfying, but rarely valued by the public and media. Relations with the media are often testy and many new TDs avoid engagement with the national media in particular. Re-election is important, political advancement similarly so. New TDs work long hours and work-life balance is problematic. For many, family life has suffered. A number of new TDs feel isolated – unsure of where and how to ask for assistance, advice and guidance.
In recent years, the resources and facilities available to all TDs – including the new arrivals – have vastly improved. In addition to office space, staff, allowances, and other services (including in particular library and research services), an induction and orientation process for new TDs has been rolled out. This is in line with an international trend towards the modernisation and professionalization of parliamentary institutions.
In Ireland however, this process is only partially advanced. It is driven primarily by the administrative, and not the political wing, of the Houses of the Oireachtas. Indeed, parliamentary leaders and political parties do not play any substantial role in designing, directing or delivering the induction programme. This is unsatisfactory because it effectively means that the induction process is overtly focused on practical assistance and does not fully cater to the political dimensions of a new TD’s role. Producing a revised programme which is focused on helping new TDs to fulfil their potential or to be the finest TDs that they can be would necessitate more targeted assistance and training. Initiatives which may aid the transition process for new TDs include: inviting former/retired TDs to act as mentors, including external contributors in the delivery of briefings, offering dedicated skills training on time management and human resource management, hosting a welcome reception for new members, and holding an Open Oireachtas Day to allow new TDs to familiarise themselves with Leinster House and its staff.
Parliamentary capacity-building of this nature is about enabling and empowering new TDs to be effective and responsible public representatives. Research elsewhere suggests that such initiatives have the potential to raise the level of parliamentary performance and to increase standards of professional political competence. In turn, this enhances parliament’s contribution to the vitality of the broader political system promoting good governance and entailing longer-term benefits for society.
In developing an enhanced induction programme for new TDs, Dáil Éireann faces two key challenges. Firstly, how to design a programme which assists new TDs in understanding and managing their new environment, but without stifling their ability to contribute to the evolution of the institution? In other words, there is a need to avoid institutionalising new TDs in ways which may prohibit the maturation of the institution. And secondly, parliamentary capacity-building is not necessarily commensurate with political reform per se, where reform involves a re-balancing of the executive-parliament relationship. Nevertheless, there may be some (legitimate) suspicion on the part of the executive that developing a more sophisticated induction programme may contribute to a process which strengthens parliament.
Reforming or renewing Dáil Éireann was at the heart of the 2011 general election campaign. In essence, parliamentary capacity-building speaks to that promise. It is not political reform in the traditional sense of the term, but it potentially constitutes part of a more broadly conceived reform process. It proposes that change is achieved, not just by introducing new rules, regulations and procedures; by streamlining the operation of the institution; or by a process of rationalisation. Reform is also achieved by valuing the members of the institution; by promoting individual capacity; and by supporting the development of TDs who are knowledgeable, skilled and confident. Such TDs are better enabled to govern responsibly and effectively, and to contribute to the rehabilitation of a much-criticised national institution.
A full copy of At Home in the New House? A Study of Ireland’s First-Time TDs by Mary C. Murphy is available at www.hansardsociety.org.uk