Are the parties starting to take Dáil reform more seriously?

Posted by David Farrell, Eoin O’Malley, Theresa Reidy and Jane Suiter

January 4, 2016

Much like waiting a long time for the proverbial bus only to see several arrive together it seems the political parties (at least some of them) are starting to take the Dáil reform agenda a little more seriously.

First, in today’s Irish Times we learned that the Taoiseach is taking a set of proposals on Dáil reform to Cabinet tomorrow that follow some of the recommendations of the Irish Constitutional Convention report of March 2014 (which can be downloaded here). The proposals he has reportedly accepted are:

  • The use of a secret ballot to elect the Ceann Comhairle. Here it’s interesting to note that apparently the Attorney General has advised that this reform would not require a constitutional change, something that the advice to the Constitutional Convention had been uncertain about.
  • The allocation of committee chair positions to parties proportionate to their party strength.
  • That the Taoiseach should appear before the working group of Oireachtas Committee chairs on a regular basis.

These steps are all easily implementable: the first two require changes to Dáil standing orders, and the third an understanding that a future Taoiseach simply accepts invitations to appear.

The news about Fine Gael’s initiative was swiftly followed by the launch of Renua’s election manifesto. In the section on political reform there are a number of proposals relating to the Dáil:

  • The election of the Ceann Comhairle of the Dáil by secret ballot.
  • A secret ballot will also apply to the election of committee chairpersons.
  • A requirement that the use of the guillotine in parliamentary debates be deemed necessary by the Attorney General.
  • New powers to be accorded to the Oireachtas in relation to reviewing submissions made by a citizens’ petitions process.
  • New powers to be accorded to Oireachtas committees to independently refer specific questions on constitutional or policy issues to an expert commission. Government will be obliged to respond to the findings of any such commission.
  • The creation of an exceptional power to delay legislation from being passed in the face of significant principled opposition. This power will require the support of the majority of parties / technical groupings in Dáil Eireann, and there will be limits on how frequently it is used.

While we might discuss the merits of some of these ideas, the fact that both Renua and Fine Gael have proposals that include changing the systems to appoint the Ceann Comhairle and Oireachtas committee chairs augers well for the possibility that these may see the light of day in the next Dáil. It would be nice to see some cross-party consensus emerge on these issues, and indeed more generally on changes to the Dáil procedures and processes that give it greater capacity to hold future governments properly to account.

Over the coming weeks we will be monitoring all the parties’ election manifestos on the theme of Dáil reform – with particular attention to reforms (1) that will actually make a difference to the power balance between the Dáil and the government, and (2) that can be delivered within the first 100 days of the new Dáil.


10 thoughts on “Are the parties starting to take Dáil reform more seriously?

    • It would, indeed, be very nice, but I am sure you are well aware from your expereince and research that that is not how things operate in Ireland. It is neither insignificant nor a coincidence that these proposed changes in Dáil procedures are being advanced by the Government in the long run-up to the next general election. This is just another cynical ploy to seek to capture the high ground on ‘political reform’. If it thought these changes might subject future governments to some measure of scrutiny, restraint and accountability between general elections the Government would not be advancing them. In addition, a lot will depend on the precise wording of any procedural changes of this nature – assuming the current government is returned in some form. And they may not even be applied in the next Dáil. Finally, given the typical emphasis on party discipline – and the time-hallowed system of winks and nods – secret ballots won’t make much difference in the Dáil.

  1. It’s encouraging to see that Renua is suppporting the creation of an exceptional power to delay legislation from being passed in the face of significant principled opposition. What makes it even more encouraging is that they are not the only party or alliance in favour of this reform. Sixty election candidates from no less than thirteen parties and alliances are supporting the One Year Initiative – a vehicle/process to implement the proposal as well as citizen initiatives.

  2. in the hope one of you guys might ever reply to comment on this blog, I’ll ask wouldn’t even a secret vote still lead to the gov majority voting in a gov favoured candidate? and once in if people complained he or the gov could say, ‘well you voted me/him in’, what real threat to his position would there be? And the goverment would continue to hold power over Dail vis the Chief Whip, the OIreachtas Commission and Committee of Procedure of Privileges. Would still expect real changes to take a few more Dails terms to come through after?

  3. IIRC some of these ideas were floated by Enda Kenny in the lead up to the Seanad vote (all quietly forgotten when that failed). Resurrected now for maximum general election impact I presume! Viva Enda’s supposed “democratic revolution”! 😉

    Secret election of the Ceann Comhairle could be a somewhat fragile reform. For it to work, there’d have be a fair degree of good faith and genuine willingness in the Dáil. Is that really present? We’ll see I guess. How it’s implemented would matter also. I think equivalent nominations in the UK Commons require a certain minimum number of cross-party supporters. Some other practical issues also. Who becomes Leas-Ceann Comhairle? The runner up in the PR-STV(?) secret ballot? What about votes of no confidence in the position? Shouldn’t they be via secret ballot also?

    Ideally, after proportionate allocation of committee chairs to parties, we would also use secret ballot to determine who in those parties actually would get those chairs (similar to some of the Tony Wright Commons committee reforms).

    If we ever do get to the stage of explicitly inserting a Ceann Comhairle secret ballot mechanism into the constitution, why not go the whole hog and insert a full article more clearly laying out and strengthening the position’s role and powers? There’s most definitely a problem with the excessive guillotining of bills. Why not give the Ceann Comhairle the discretion to refuse guillotine motions? Or create a House Business Committee chaired by the Ceann Comhairle with a significant input into scheduling of Dáil time? Or give him the discretion and power to recall the Dáil in his own right? It has also often crossed my mind that Dáil standing orders are just too easily chopped and changed at short notice. Perhaps requiring an absolute majority of all TDs to change standing orders would be an improvement. This wouldn’t be anti-democratic. However, it would make changing parliamentary procedures more awkward and a bigger deal. Might even incentivize more thought being put into writing them in the first place. And, when rules are harder to change, those actually refereeing them become of greater significance.

  4. 1. Election of Ceann Comhairle by secret ballot seems a good idea in that he / she will be choice of the Dáil rather than in effect an appointee of the Taoiseach. Worth bearing in mind that in olden days (up to 1973, that is) the CC tended to hold the office until he (no female holders of the position yet) died or retired; in other words, the holder of the position was not there as a result of being chosen by the Taoiseach, and often had been initially elected for one of the parties in opposition (eg Frank Fahy during the first Inter-Party government of 1948–51, or Patrick Hogan while Fianna Fáil was in government 1951 to 1954 and 1957 to 1967). So a CC who doesn’t owe his / her position to the government or Taoiseach of the day would not be a completely new development.

    2. There are some logistical issues that might need to be thought about. Electing a CC is the first act of the new Dáil, followed by the election of the Taoiseach and appointment of the government. Evidently, no TD who is in line for a government position, or even a junior ministry, would want to become CC. While the Taoiseach-elect has no doubt selected his / her ministers at that stage and informed them of what they’re in line for, the junior ministerial line-up may take a few more days to emerge. It’s plausible to imagine government backbenchers undecided as to whether to stand for CC or whether to hold out in the hope of being made a minister of state, which might affect the calibre of TD willing to seek the position. Matters would be even more complicated if, as after several elections of the 1980s and 1990s, no-one is certain, even when the Dáil first meets, just which parties will be in government, which would mean TDs from most parties would be reluctant to stand for the position of CC in case this means they miss out on a position of power.

    3. Allocating committee chairs proportionally to Dáil strength is also a good idea, as would be secret ballot among committee members to select the particular member (of the designated party) who will be the chair. The chair’s mandate then comes from the committee rather than from the party leader. But would be better if the proportional allocation is made by the Sainte-Laguë method, which is even-handed as between larger and smaller parties, rather than by the D’Hondt method, which tends to favour the larger groups.

  5. Noel Whelan “The reality is these reforms are happening now because the Government is being compelled by a co-ordinated effort by the Opposition in the Dáil and by extra-parliamentary pressures” what has bigger influence on Kenny’s mind? the election or Noel Whelan?

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