Thursday 29 September 2016

Fewer TDs would ensure more focus on our national interest

Desmond Clarke

Published 19/05/2016 | 02:30

'When drafting the Constitution, Eamon de Valera seems to have planned for a large number of compliant local representatives who could get re-elected and could then be 'whipped' to support legislation that originates with their leader'
'When drafting the Constitution, Eamon de Valera seems to have planned for a large number of compliant local representatives who could get re-elected and could then be 'whipped' to support legislation that originates with their leader'

There are many factors that contributed to the current political situation. They include the parlous state of the country's finances, which resulted from irresponsible borrowing by successive governments to fund the day-to-day expenses of the State. They also include the flawed understanding of democracy of some TDs, who encourage citizens to break a law with which they disagree while they assume that everyone is bound by the laws that they support.

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Refusing to obey the law is a short step from refusing to recognise the State.

Another less obvious but significant factor, which has been latent since 1937, is the total number of TDs in the Dáil and the manner of their election.

In the current Dáil, there are two Sinn Féin TDs representing Louth, two Fianna Fáil TDs from Cork South-Central, two Healy-Reas representing Kerry and two Fine Gael TDs from Mayo. Is this not redundant duplication?

In the abstract, there is no way to decide how many TDs are required for a given population. International comparisons may provide some guidance. Better still, we can judge the success of any political structure by how it works in practice.

In the US, there is one member in the House of Representatives for approximately 735,000 citizens; of course, they are responsible only for federal legislation, while each state has a House of Representatives and a Senate to pass state laws.

In the UK, there is one MP for approximately 100,000 citizens, and in France the ratio is 1:115,000. In stark contrast, Article 16 of the Irish Constitution fixes the ratio as one TD for 20,000 to 30,000 citizens.

When this provision is combined with multi-seat constituencies, the effect is that those who are elected must focus on local issues rather than on the national interest. To support their re-election, they will have to defend the interests of their local communities and compete even with members of their own party for re-election.

It is universally agreed by political scientists that the interests of individuals often conflict with the common good. Unfortunately, it is equally true that the interests of local communities may not coincide with the national interest. Nonetheless, we urgently need members of the national parliament to focus on the interests of the nation rather than on those of their local constituents.

The national interests include national defence, when necessary; they also include the financial stability of the country, the control of crime, and the equitable distribution of the services that are provided by the State, such as healthcare, education, housing, etc.

In an ideal world, we might hope that TDs elected in accordance with the current provisions of the Constitution would give priority to the national interest rather than the interests of those who elected them locally.

In the real world, however, it is more likely that TDs who are elected from relatively small multi-seat constituencies will revert to protecting the interests of their own constituencies or parishes.

We urgently need a parliament that will focus primarily on the interests that we all share - those that the Constitution refers to as the "common good".

We need legislators whose fundamental task is to draft, discuss, and pass legislation that addresses the public interest.

It would be much easier for those who are elected to a national parliament to exercise their primary function if they were not accountable to relatively small local communities or constituencies. One option, therefore, would be to have much larger, multi-seat constituencies in which TDs are elected by proportional representation; on two occasions in the past the people rejected proposals to abolish the multi-seat system.

When drafting the Constitution, Eamon de Valera seems to have planned for a large number of compliant local representatives who could get re-elected and could then be "whipped" to support legislation that originates with their leader.

Many TDs who were elected to the current Dáil want to reform its procedures and rules.

For example, in a reformed Dáil, there is no reason why majority parties should exercise a monopoly on proposing legislation. This could be done better by a cross-party committee. However, would even a radically reformed Dáil ever vote for a significant reduction in its own membership and propose a corresponding amendment to the Constitution?

Desmond Clarke is an academic and author who has written about the Irish Constitution

Irish Independent

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