TDs, Turnover and Transition: Dáil Éireann Needs To Do More to Help New Members

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

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2 thoughts on “TDs, Turnover and Transition: Dáil Éireann Needs To Do More to Help New Members

  1. Mary
    This seems like a useful piece of work.
    “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.”

    I do wonder about the extent to which what you call parliamentary capacity building is possible when there is an effective complete fusion between the Dáil and the Government, as set out in Constitution which specifies that Government is firmly and completely tied to the Dáil. Although it is structured like a sub-committee of the Dáil, Government must control the Dáil or else it ceases to be the Government. Our Constitution specifies that
    • the Taoiseach is nominated by the Dáil (Art 13.1)
    • The Taoiseach, Tánaiste and the Minister for Finance must be TDs (Art 28.7.1)
    • There may be between 7 and 15 members of the government (Art 28.1), who must be TDs or Senators of whom no more than 2 may Cabinet ministers (Art. 28.7.2)
    • The Government is responsible to Dáil Éireann (Art. 28.4.1)
    • If the Taoiseach must resign if (s)he ceases to hold a majority in the Dáil (Art. 28.10), in which case the Government is deemed to have resigned.

    I suggest that these constitutional measures limit the scope for the kind of parliamentary capacity building you outline. Your finding that existing efforts to do so are driven by administration lends credence to the need for the complete separation of the Government from the Dáil ie. a beak from the Westminster model.

    Our present structure is like a see-saw with the Dáil/representative function at one end and the Government/executive role at the other.
    Any rise in the effectiveness of one implies a drop in the other. A new structure is needed which would cut the tie so that the capacity of each can be improved without weakening the other equally necessary organ of state.

    In our present system, any improvement in the Dáil’s capacity actually weakens the Government. We need to separate the Dáil as the legislative assembly of representatives from the Rialtas as the executive side of Government. Otherwise, the Dáil cannot develop its own capacity to act independently as part of the checks and balances on Government. Until that link is cut, the Dáil cannot begin to grow, use its authority and power to become an independent but complementary force to Government and another source of options on policies and implementation for us to consider.

  2. Mary Murphy,

    Congratulations on your paper; a fine piece of work. Hopefully, you will receive support to continue with this study of the life of our political ‘worker-bees’ into the future. A follow-up survey of the same group after the next election would provide further valuable insights into the life of the average parliamentarian, including how many of the current crop will have chosen to seek re-election and what factors they perceive as influencing their prospects of success/failure.

    One point of particular interest in your report is the high percentage of TDs who aspire to hold a Cabinet position as a natural career progression, since it has long been noted ( though offhand I can’t recall the author of this observation!) that ,unlike the UK, TDs here do not aspire to a career as a parliamentarian in its own right and invariably perceive career ‘success’ in terms of attainment of Cabinet office in due course. In that context, your report’s recommendation regarding improving the capacity of the Dail to allow TDs to constructively utilise their talents and expertise within parliamentary institutions is very important. Otherwise, why would intelligent and reasonably well-educated ‘new’ parliamentarians do anything other than ‘vote with their feet’ and get out before they atrophy? Otherwise, they may be in for a long wait to ‘achieve’ success and by the time it comes along for them they will have become institutionalised, or worse, and long since lost any drive or ambition for radical change in our society that may have impelled them to opt for a political career in the first place.

    Another useful aspect of this report is that it ‘humanises’ the work/life experience of our political class who all too often are represented as some disconnected elite, out of touch with the lives and concerns of ordinary citizens living the life of Reilly at the taxpayers’ expense and doing no work at all. That’s clearly not the case. Also, tt was good to see your research receiving extensive publicity as this may help in dispelling some of the more commonplace representations of ‘clientilism’ as a purely negative part of political life and contribute to a more rounded perspective on what representative democracy is about in practice. Of course, all of that would be helped along if newbie TDs had a clearer vision of what the ‘job’ is for. That was the most surprising element in your report – why on earth would anyone go for a career without having properly researched the institution they were joining, its culture and practices, its procedures and norms? Especially a career in national politics? In any case, I suspect that many of the subjects of your study may not have to bother themselves too much about all that stuff; they won’t be around long enough to have to find out about it.

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