The sub-committee on Dáil reform published its ‘draft’ final report yesterday and it makes for very pleasurable reading. Among the key proposals are the following:
- Dáil agenda and order of business to be determined by a new business committee chaired by the Ceann Comhairle;
- A new and powerful Budget Oversight Committee whose work will be supported by a new Independent Budget Office (set up on a statutory basis);
- The Office of the Parliamentary Legal advisor to be given an increased role to assist members in drafting legislation;
- The timetable of the Dáil to be recalibrated to avoid clashes between plenary and committee sittings;
- A restructuring of committees, which includes the aim that a TD should normally sit only on one committee;
- Post-legislative scrutiny.
These are the types of proposals for reform that have been called for on a number of occasions (e.g. in the 7th report of the Constitutional Convention in 2014, and in the ‘100 days’ campaign that I and my colleagues promoted during the recent election). They provide a great opportunity for a re-balancing of the relationship between Dáil and government. They bring us much closer to what was envisaged in article 28.4.1 of the Constitution.
The Dáil’s style of operation is about to become more accommodating and consensual, but there is a need to tread carefully. One other recommendation by the Dail reform sub-committee that is significant here is the proposal to change the rules relating to parliamentary group status in two respects: (1) to reduce the minimum size from 7 to 5, and (2) to permit more than one technical group. There is a risk that this could result in the Dail becoming more difficult to manage: more groups require more Dail time and increases the risk of chaos in the chamber. The first couple of weeks of the new Dail (admittedly under the existing archaic rules) have shown just how chaotic things can get.
The Irish parliament now has the potential to transform from being a legislative backwater to becoming an influential national parliament, with the same ability to hold the government to account that we see in other European democracies.
But for this ambitious package of Dail reform measures to work it is incumbent on all of its members (whether in government or in opposition) to act responsibly: ‘majoritarian’ (adversarial) grandstanding needs to be replaced by a more ‘consensual’ (accommodating) style of politics: the name of the game should be less about scoring points against your opponents and more about finding ways to cooperate and work together. The government still needs to govern, but it needs to take better account than before of the views of the opposition. The opposition still needs to oppose, but this should be less about opposing for opposing sake and more about opposing when the issue calls for it.