Thursday 23 November 2017

A Dail that really does the job . . .

The Dail in the 21st Century Anthony O'Halloran (Mercier Press, €32.70)

Ask most Irish people if they think the Dail does its job well, and the answer will be an emphatic "No". Ask them what the think the Dail's job should be, and the answer will probably be a vaguely expressed wish that the Dail should "run the country".

The argument made in this book is that the Dail comes in for a lot of unfair criticism because there is no realistic consensus about what the Dail should be doing on a day-to-day basis. The author believes that political commentators and editorial writers often criticise the Dail on the basis of antique and unrealisable standards. They assume that the Dail should live up to a 19th-century British ideal of parliament, of a body that debates freely on policy, decides, and then instructs the government to implement its will.

The author argues that this is unrealistic and was never true in practice. Power in the Irish political system has always been centred in the Cabinet, not in the Dail. If all 166 Dail members had to be involved in every decision, things would not get done.

He argues that the goal for the Dail should, instead, be what he cumbersomely calls "discursive accountability". Translated, this means that the Dail should be a place for airing and discussing public concerns about government activity or inactivity, and then holding the government to account when it does not do its job well.

On that standard, he argues that the Dail is actually doing its job much better than it did 30 years ago. The new committee system now allows all sorts of citizen groups to get a hearing that they would have been denied years ago.

And the Dail standing orders allow topical matters to be aired very quickly with the Taoiseach. The televising of the Dail makes it a forum that is seen to react to public concerns in a very visible way.

I believe the author is right, up to a point. The implicit standard by which the Dail's performance was often judged was never realistic. There have indeed been significant improvements in the Dail's ability to be seen to react quickly to public opinion.

But this book fails to ask the really important question: how well does the Dail do its constitutional job of exercising the "sole and exclusive power of making laws for the State"?

I believe the Dail does not do that core job as well as it should. In fact, debates on new laws are often cut short. Many pages of new law are passed by the Dail without ever having been examined on a line-by-line basis in committee because of a supposed lack of time.

This is particularly bad in the case of the Finance Bill, whose time limits are exploited by the introduction by ministers of long and complex amendments at the last minute, which are then passed without having been discussed at all.

Oppositions contribute to poor lawmaking if they use up scarce debating time making the same political points over and over again, thus eating into time for more detailed scrutiny. Opposition frontbenchers and ministers dominate proceedings and backbenchers are not encouraged to submit amendments.

The Dail question is the most powerful tool in the hands of a TD. Most of the time, it is a very effective way of getting an issue on to ministers' desks, and getting an answer. But there have been exceptions to this.

Many hold that the costly Beef Tribunal would never have been necessary if full answers had been given to certain Dail questions in the first place.

I believe the key reform, that would make the Dail work properly in the 21st century, would be the appointment of a Ceann Comhairle who is much more powerful, and much more independent , than any holder of that office has been to date.

The Ceann Comhairle should have a role similar to that of the Speaker in the US system.

Such a Ceann Comhairle should, in particular, be given two new powers. First, he should be given an input to the timetabling of Dail business, so that he can make sure that members have had adequate time and opportunity to scrutinise every section of every bill.

If necessary, he should be able to require that the Dail sit extra days to achieve that goal. Second, he should be given the power to require a minister to answer a Dail question again, if he has satisfied himself that the original answer was inadequate. If a strong Ceann Comhairle exercised that power we would have no further need for tribunals!

To have the authority to exercise these new powers, the Ceann Comhairle should probably be selected by a secret ballot of members, as the Speaker is in Britain. Governments would still have ultimate power to decide all issues by majority vote, but a stronger Ceann Comhairle would ensure better protection for minorities and for the public.

John Bruton is a former Taoiseach and a former EU Ambassador to the US

Irish Independent

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