Friday 24 March 2017

Kieran Coughlan: Choosing a Ceann Comhairle always has political implications in a divided Dáil

Kieran Coughlan, a former Clerk of the Dail. Photo: Tom Burke
Kieran Coughlan, a former Clerk of the Dail. Photo: Tom Burke

Kieran Coughlan

The political drama of the first sitting day of the new Dáil today is focused on the formation of a government. While it is generally accepted that a Taoiseach will not be elected on the day, there is a full expectation that a Ceann Comhairle (CC) will be. The balance of power in the Dáil means the election of the CC has always had political implications, which is slightly more intriguing this time with the introduction of the secret ballot.

Already a number of candidates have expressed an interest in becoming the next CC. How many go forward at the close of nominations will give us an insight into how parties or groups are shaping up in negotiations for government.

Two Articles in the Constitution are key in understanding how the position is filled. Article 15.11 - where the CC has a casting vote only when there is a tied vote in the Dáil - is paramount. There is no wriggle room here - once a member becomes the CC his or her party or group is down one vote.

And Article 16.6, the automatic re-election of a CC at the following general election, is also a factor, especially if this Dáil's life is expected to be short-lived and Ivan Yates's description of "stealing a seat in the next Dáil" comes into play.

It was not always the case. When the automatic re-election was introduced in 1927 it was linked to continuity in office. For the first 50 years of this State, with one exception in 1932, the outgoing CC was unanimously reselected as CC regardless of any change in government after a general election. Moreover, when the CC resigned, the Leas CC was selected to fill the vacancy.

In 1973, the election process became politicised when balance of power considerations came into play. The outgoing FF government withdrew the CC from the chair, thereby forcing the incoming National Coalition to select a CC from its own ranks, thereby reducing its majority by one. Balance of power considerations have been paramount ever since.

When the result of the election is a hung Dáil, the position of CC was something of a poisoned chalice, and in 1981, 1982 and 1987 an Independent took the chair as a last-minute solution. In 1981, for example, on the first sitting day of the Dáil, there was much speculation that the Dáil would dissolve again that evening. Fianna Fáil were reportedly going to choose one of their electorally weakest members for the chair so they could avail of the automatic re-election. John O'Connell, then an Independent, was persuaded to take the chair at the eleventh hour so an immediate dissolution was avoided.

Once the political mould was broken when Fianna Fáil went into coalition in 1989, the prospect of an immediate dissolution of the Dáil on the first day of the sitting receded. Political manoeuvrings now took a different turn, where the chair was seen as a prize of an incoming coalition, even if that government could not be put in place by the first sitting day. In 1992 much speculation centred around having the outgoing CC Sean Tracey take the chair temporarily to allow for a CC for that Dáil to be appointed once the government could be formed. Legal advice was that a CC had to be elected first - before nomination of the Taoiseach.

In any event Mr Tracey was not prepared to act as a temporary CC and he was an agreed candidate again.

Given this history, what will be the impact of the secret ballot? In a hung Dáil, with the balance of power on a knife-edge, it is unlikely to have much impact and an unaligned candidate is likely to gain majority support. However, if the seasoned view is that the Dáil may not last then one of the major parties may put forward a candidate in order to have an automatic seat in the next Dáil. The main difficulty in doing so, however, is that the election of the CC comes too early in the process of forming a government and the party would not like to signal so soon an apparent unwillingness to form a government by reducing its number of TDs by one.

The secret ballot is on the nomination of candidates - allowing for the election by public vote in the Dáil if necessary - and aims to reduce the influence of party leaders in the nominations. In the UK House of Commons the secret ballot was seen as a growth of the power of the backbenchers. There have been no such signs here that backbenchers are willing to break ranks effectively from the party leadership, which would be anxious to retain their numbers as an aspiring coalition partner.

The nomination of candidates for CC should act as an early indication of the intentions of the parties to form a government and will make the first day of the Dáil even more interesting.

Kieran Coughlan is a former Clerk of the Dáil

Irish Independent

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