Reforming the Oireachtas as an Oversight and Accountability Mechanism for Human Rights

CommitteeRoom_4_800Post by Kirsten Roberts*

In democracies, parliaments are crucial in balancing the use of power by the executive and overseeing the functioning of the State. In Ireland this balance is off – with the executive and civil service seemingly unwilling to cede any real control to oversight or accountability mechanisms. While the Oireachtas has been prominent as perhaps the only body able to publicly consider many of the difficult issues that have arisen this year – from whistleblowers to the charities sector – its role as an oversight mechanism is not being fully realised.

This week at the United Nations in Geneva, the results of an 18-month project on Effective Parliamentary Oversight of Human Rights will be launched. With my colleague, Dr Philippa Webb of King’s College London, we will put forward proposals aimed at encouraging parliaments to become more effective in their human rights work. A debate on this issue is urgently required in Ireland.

The events that have transpired so far this year highlight that is time to reopen the debate on whether we want to give more powers to the Oireachtas as an oversight and accountability mechanism. The rejected amendment to the Constitution to give the Oireachtas inquiry powers was somewhat marred by scare tactics about ‘kangaroo courts’ and the absence of sufficient time for any real debate. So instead of an Oireachtas with more powers to oversee the actions of the executive and state-funded bodies, we have been left in the situation that we have only ad-hoc mechanisms set up where the Government finds it expedient and on such terms as it wishes. Recent events have also thrown light on the inherent weaknesses in many of the independent state bodies set up for the purpose oversight and regulation. Their weaknesses, rectifiable through legislative amendment if there is political will, underscore the need for the Oireachtas to take a more active role. Now is the time to reopen the discussion in Ireland as to what powers we wish the Oireachtas to have for oversight and accountability.

While broader reforms are needed, a dedicated human rights mechanism in the Oireachtas – whether it is a committee, sub-committee or rapporteur, is urgently required. Whatever its form, it should have a clear goal. In our report, we propose what such a goal might look like:

To help ensure increased compliance with human rights and a better life for all the people in this country, through publicly examining existing or potential human rights deficits identified by parliamentarians, international organisations, the National Human Rights Institution, Civil Society Organisations, the media, the public, victims, whistleblowers and others; making proposals on areas for change or improvement; and calling the government to account for failures to protect the rights of the people of this country.

A clear goal for an Oireachtas human rights mechanism would help to provide focus, purpose and clarity to its work. In Geneva this week, we will be proposing other factors that are needed for parliamentary oversight mechanisms, such as a broad composition and stable mandate. But in addition any mechanism, parliamentarians also have individual responsibilities. Members of the Oireachtas should ensure they are educated on human rights standards, and aware of human rights issues. For both the mechanism and individual parliamentarians there must be engagement with independent oversight bodies in the State, as well as with Civil Society Organisations and victims’ groups. Members of the Oireachtas should take personal responsibility for the promotion of specific human rights issues, particularly those relevant to their constituents. How the Oireachtas can oversee human rights should be central to any debate on reform. I hope that the proposals we put forward in Geneva this week can contribute to making this much needed change.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of any other individual, institution or organisation.

*Kirsten Roberts is a doctoral researcher at The Dickson Poon School of Law, King’s College London. From 2008-2013 she was Acting Deputy Chief Executive and Director of Research, Policy and Promotion at the Irish Human Rights Commission. She has been a Visiting Researcher at Harvard Law School and has worked for 15 years in human rights and international law including at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, and with Amnesty International.

The Outcome Document of the Project on Effective Parliamentary Oversight of Human Rights can be found here:

5 thoughts on “Reforming the Oireachtas as an Oversight and Accountability Mechanism for Human Rights

  1. Good to see yet another call for TDs to take positions on issues without waiting for Government. This is more grist for those of us who believe in a complete separation between the Dáil (as our direct elected legislative assembly) and Government as executive, as part of a series of checks and balances to limit the scope for excess (including an excess of inertia) by the powerful both elected and appointed.

    • Donal,

      It’s good to see you keeping up the good fight.

      While initiatives such as this are worthy, in terms of the principal objective you outline, they are not worth while. What is far more significant is the evidence presented in the previous post. It displays an abiding commitment to the institutions of democracy, which is magnificent and deserves celebration. And while it may suggest an increasing rejection of the established political class and its policies, to me, it strongly indicates a growing rejection of the process of governance practised by the three mainstream parties since the foundation of the state (with occasional marginal, ephemeral inputs from smaller parties, e.g, Clann na Talmhann, Clann na Poblachta, the PDs and the Greens).

      The key question then becomes: is there among this increasing new class of politicians in SF and among the independents the equivalent of a Jefferson, a Madison, a Jay or a Hamilton to re-establish an effective process of democratic governance? My fear is that there isn’t. And, following the next general election, the mainstream parties will circle their wagons to protect their privileges and prerogatives (and those of the special interests that have suborned them). We can see this circling of the wagons already in the European Parlaiment as the centre-right and centre-left blocs combine to negate and ignore the growing popular rejection of the EU’s process of governance.

      But these reactive tactics will simply fuel and increase popular rejection. Change will come – in Ireland and throughout the EU.

      • Paul,
        Rather than trying to discern a Jefferson or a Madison or a Jay among the elected politicians, I still think it worthwhile making an effort to advocate some ideas in this forum and others eg. Constitutional Convention, Open Government Partnership/OGP. IMO, this is the only way for ideas to emerge and be refined in the effort to enhance our way of governing ourselves grounded in democratic legitimacy, at local, national, and transnational levels.

        As an example, my reading of the Federalist papers is that there must have been considerable discussion among many, not just those who actually wrote the papers as part of an effort to persuade people to adopt the US Constitution, following the drafting work in Philadelphia in 1787. As you know, this meeting arose from disatisfaction with the Articles of Confederation adopted 10 years earlier.

        I suggest that some similar dicussion took place prior to the adoption of the Constitution of the Free State. However, what emerged from the 1916 Rising and the the War of Independence was a narrow perspective of a Republic being little more than a 32-county Ireland independent of Westminster. The 1937 Constitution formalised much of the custom and practice of a Westminster style of government, but with some signficant changes eg.
        – a written constitution;
        – the people being the sole source of power Article 6.1;
        – a proportional electoral system, based on constituencies.

        re. Change, I suggest that the late Dr. David Thornley’s insight still resonates
        “There may be change in the criteria of decision-making at the top; change in social habits at the bottom. But unless these two are bridged by the mutual education of the democratic process, communication between the top and the bottom may cease. And in Ireland, where the stimulus to change is to a great extent external, something like this may in fact be happening…But if decision-makers respond more quickly to the challenge of change than the masses, the continuing vitality of democracy turns essentially upon their capacity to communicate their convictions to society…They must be able to persuade the electorate of the necessity of what they are doing. This, if anywhere, is where leadership that is otherwise good has failed in Ireland.”
        David Thornley, Ireland – the end of an era? Dublin. Tuairim. 1965. p.11-12
        Originally published in Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review Vol. 53, No. 209 (Spring, 1964), pp. 1-17. Reprinted in Yseult Thornley Unquiet spirit: essays in memory of David Thornley Dublin. Liberties Press. 2008

        Change is happening as we write. The key issue is what institutions finally emerge – not necessarily who emerges.
        I still consider that
        1. we need a mutually reinforcing system of checks and balances to limit the scope for excess by the powerful;
        2. Sustaining such checks and balances means they must be grounded in democratic legitimacy;
        3. Such democratic legitimacy needs more than periodically electing representatives to a national legislative assembly.

  2. Donal,

    Many thanks. I suspect your are well aware that we are on the same page with regard to most of these issues – in particular your three-point conclusion.

    But I remain less sanguine than you when you contend that changed institutions will emerge and down-right pessimistic about the process of governance that will ensue. Quite simply, more and more voters are rejecting the mainstream parties as these parties cling to the current process of governance to deliver benefits to the special interest groups which have suborned them at the expense of the vast majority of citizens. Apart from some relatively minor modifications, largely imposed by the Troika (with some continuing grindingly slow-to-emerge modifications at the EU level), the process of governance that left Ireland so vulnerable to the global credit-crunch in 2008 remains intact.

    The identity and ‘selling points’ of the non-mainstream party representatives whom more and more voters are choosing to elect doesn’t really matter. Many of the so-called ‘independents’ come from the gene-pool of the mainstream parties and offer a more tailor-made ciientelist service; some are in thrall to out-dated ideologies; while others betray a naive and enchanting idealism. But what they share is anti-elitism – which, in many cases, extends to being anti-EU. And there is a focus on preserving traditional community, cultural and native common bonds – which often extends to excluding immigrants. However, there is no possibility of establishing a coherent party of government from these inchoate strands.

    The mainstream parties will continue to secure sufficient support to cobble together an arrangement that will deliver some form of governance, but the gap between them and an increasing number of disaffected citizens will only grow. It is not a desirable prospect. But none of the mainstream parties appears capable of casting aside the shackles that this plethora of special interest groups have imposed on them. Nor do they seem to have any interest in attempting to do so.

    Will one of the three mainstream parties throw off the shackles and reach out to these increasingly disaffected voters with an offer of good genuine governance in the broad public interest? Somehow I doubt it

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