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James Downey: Without reform we're doomed to repeat same old mistakes

TODAY, the 30th Dail will be dissolved. We won't miss it. Its term has been inglorious, its ending chaotic. These past four years have done no service to Irish parliamentary democracy.

Sidelining of the legislature by the executive has occurred frequently in other countries. But Ireland is a special case and has never been more so than in the lifetime of the 30th Dail.

Never mind the sound and fury during Leaders' Questions. That has achieved nothing more than a little favourable publicity for opposition leaders, usually Eamon Gilmore, and glimpses of Brian Cowen's moods, switching from glum to angry and back again. The effect on the governance of the country has been zero.

Did it matter? Most people thought not. They regarded the opposition, rightly for the most part, as irrelevant. The Government was there to run the country. If it did not, "ah well, the civil servants do it anyway".

But then we discovered that much of the bureaucracy had been asleep on the job.

Those who took an interest in such matters felt that it would help to have a powerful committee system, with concentrated work in backrooms instead of point-scoring in the chamber. Long before Brian Cowen's time -- before Bertie Ahern's time -- the committees multiplied. The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is the oldest and most important. Let's see how it works.

The Comptroller and Auditor General produces a report detailing horrifying stories of waste and mismanagement. The PAC debates it. It calls witnesses. Some of them get a fairly rough time when they don't know the answers to the questions.

Then everything goes on exactly as before -- or, rather, not exactly as before because the waste and mismanagement not only continue, they get worse.

In short, the process is a charade and it is hardly too much to say that the whole edifice of parliamentary democracy is a charade.

We found that out the hard way when the representatives of the EU and the IMF arrived in town. The Taoiseach (and let's remember he is still Taoiseach until the 31st Dail meets and elects a successor) refused to believe that they were on the way. Now he knows and we know who really runs our affairs.

Would it have been any different if we had a system in which the legislature genuinely holds the executive to account? In which opposition leaders make forceful, timely, relevant speeches which oblige governments to take note?

In which respected and expert backbenchers get a chance to put ministers under real pressure, in extreme cases, to force their resignations?

Of course it would. But in order to achieve such a system, we would need a set of radical departures, founded on a belief that parliamentary democracy can work, which means that governments can be made truly accountable to parliaments.

For a start, we need a change in the Dail's standing orders. In the 30th Dail and in most of its predecessors, there was no dialogue.

A speaker said his or her piece; the following speaker said his or hers, often without reference to what had gone before. Interruptions consisted mostly of noisy and witless heckling. The cry of the Ceann Comhairle was heard: "The minister, without interruption."

This is not discourse, but its opposite.

No wonder, though, that discourse should be absent in the Dail when it has been so conspicuously absent in the relations between the parties in the Coalition, which has collapsed in disorder.

Under any system, some rules of politics remain immutable. Governments need at least a minimal sense of common purpose beyond merely holding office. Governments should be strong, but so should oppositions. Power must be limited, but it must be real. And it must not be allowed to drift away.

One of the most remarkable features of the 30th Dail has been the influence wielded by independent deputies. Whether they use such influence for good or ill is not the point.

The point is that the weak Cowen Government has ceded to them part of the power that properly belongs to itself. It's tempting to think that this can't happen in the 31st Dail, in which a Fine Gael-Labour coalition could hold 100 seats out of 166. But the strength of a government is not a mere question of numbers.

The Fianna Fail-Labour Government under Albert Reynolds had a massive majority. Like all Fianna Fail-led coalitions, it came to a bad end. This does not prove (though it certainly seems plausible) that Fianna Fail simply cannot run successful coalitions. In any case, at present, it is an academic question.

Fianna Fail's problem right now is not one of excessive numbers, but lack of them. The excessive numbers problem and policy difference are part of the difficulties for Fine Gael and Labour. The real Fianna Fail difficulty is one for the country as well as -- perhaps even more than -- for the party.

For, as I have already remarked, parliamentary democracy needs strong oppositions as well as strong governments.

If the voters give Fianna Fail fewer than 30 seats in the 31st Dail, there will be no effective opposition. It doesn't matter how many go to Sinn Fein or the United Left Alliance or independents.

Another good reason to reform the system. But can we expect a new government, struggling with an emergency of gigantic proportions, to think such lofty and selfless thoughts?

Irish Independent