Muiris MacCarthaigh: Executive accountability to Dail still elephant in the room
THESE have been extraordinary times for Irish parliamentary politics. Breakdowns in party discipline have reached new levels, significant new powers are proposed for Oireachtas inquiries, and all the while an uncertain fate hangs over Seanad Eireann.
While public attention has been drawn to the tensions between party whips attempting to ensure voting cohesion on the one hand and members seeking freedoms on issues of conscience on the other, the underlying issue of executive accountability to Dail Eireann remains the elephant in the room.
The latter has dogged the parliament since its inception and goes to the heart of why party leaders seek to control the voting behaviour of their members, as well as a number of historic failures in Irish public governance. Few disagree that reform is long overdue.
Traditionally, parliamentary reform is the refrain of opposition members, bemoaning their exclusion from policy-making and their inability adequately to perform their mandated scrutiny function.
Earlier this year, however, it was a government backbencher, Eoghan Murphy TD, who published proposals for Dail reform. Within the past few weeks the chairman of the major party in government and the government chief whip voiced their criticisms of the pace of promised parliamentary reform. These calls by governing party members to fundamentally recalibrate the balance of power in the Oireachtas are redolent of similar appeals made a generation ago during another Fine Gael-Labour administration.
In 1975, then assistant government chief whip Barry Desmond TD stole the march on reform. In a wonderful flourish, he argued in 'The Houses of the Oireachtas – A Plea for Reform' that in the absence of change, parliament would "ossify into a permanent state of preservation".
Since his plea was made, there have been notable changes to parliamentary business. Many of these are overlooked in routine criticisms of the legislature – Dail sitting times have increased since the 1980s, better resources have been introduced for members and staff in the Oireachtas, greater public access to Oireachtas business has been facilitated (mainly through the introduction of TV cameras) and, of course, the committee system as we know it was introduced in the early 1990s.
These reforms have, however, been incremental rather than radical, more a reflection of necessary (if not inevitable) modernisation than root and branch reform.
Some of the changes to the Dail timetable initiated by the current government have with justification been criticised for being relatively limited or ineffectual, but others of considerable importance have surfaced quietly. Only a few weeks ago, significant amendments to Dail standing orders were approved. Among other things, these now for the first time oblige the Government to report to the Dail its priorities for all future EU presidencies; the Taoiseach must also now address the chamber in relation to European Council meetings. A new Parliamentary Steering Group on EU Affairs will address long-standing concerns about co-ordination of EU matters.
These developments are to be welcomed, but there is scope for more innovation. Some reforms are not feasible under prevailing procedures. An essential first step is for parliamentary rules to more formally reflect the fact that the executive is not the sole purveyor of good policy, and to build on the success of recent initiatives such as the pre-legislative scrutiny with which Oireachtas committees now engage.
Even Westminster, viewed internationally as a model of executive-controlled parliament, accepted this some time ago; it is also reflected in the design of the devolved legislatures in Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh. And building on reforms of recent years, the British government is now actively considering proposals to allow opposition parties greater access to civil service skills and policy-making capacity.
While Dail reform is in the gift of the Government, its success depends on responsible and constructive opposition. The willingness of the Government to open itself up to further scrutiny will be proportionate to the inclination of those on the other side of the chamber to live up to promises made about such opposition at the start of this 31st Dail. There is much to be said for evidence-based opposition to policy rather than simply opposition for the sake of it.
Alongside internal reforms, we must consider broader issues such as the capacity of parliament to be active rather than reactive in influencing and setting the national policy agenda. Several commentators, including most recently the President, have noted that the financial crisis rapidly exposed the relative impotence of national parliaments in the face of ratings agencies and footloose capital markets. The need to rethink how parliament can protect and promote the public interest has never been more pressing, as evidenced by the proposed Oireachtas inquiries legislation.
As the Oireachtas enters its summer recess, there is an opportunity to reflect on how to prepare for a new standard of parliamentary government in Ireland, a chance to make substantive and sustainable improvements that will be felt well beyond the parliamentary arena – whether that arena is unicameral or bicameral.
Dr Muiris MacCarthaigh is lecturer in Irish politics at Queen's University Belfast. He is author of 'Accountability in Irish Parliamentary Politics' (2005) and co-editor (with Maurice Manning) of 'The Houses of the Oireachtas: Parliament in Ireland' (2010).