Friday 24 January 2020

The Dáil must change utterly if we're to have any hope of a stable minority government

The Dáil chamber. Photo: Tony Gavin
The Dáil chamber. Photo: Tony Gavin
John Downing

John Downing

Those consolation prizes for Government TDs who failed to get a Cabinet seat or a junior ministry no longer exist.

The chair of an Oireachtas committee, which also carries an extra taxable allowance of €8,750 per year was, like the ministerial appointments, effectively in the gift of the Taoiseach. So virtually all of those committee chairs traditionally went to disappointed government backbenchers.

But on the final day of the last Dáil, it was agreed that the Ceann Comhairle would be elected by private ballot and the consolation prizes would cease to exist.

Under those changes, voted through on January 28 last, henceforth the committee chairs will be allocated on the relative strength of the parties under the so-called d'Hondt method which is already being used in Northern Ireland.

Many Opposition TDs scoffed at this minute-to-midnight conversion by Enda Kenny & Co to the cause of real parliamentary reform. But that said, these two changes could prove significant in helping sustain stable government - assuming the parties and Independents can break their circular and inter-linked road block.

In another sign of hope, the TDs delivered a rare show of cross-party unanimity on its first day, by unanimously approving the establishment of a 15-member cross-party committee to work out new Dáil structures.

That committee is chaired by Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl, a low-key but very experienced and respected politician, upon whose shoulders a lot of responsibility rests as the nation's first elected Dáil chairman. The other members represent all parties and none - and bring a huge blend of experience and newcomer enthusiasm.

They are Regina Doherty, Eoghan Murphy and David Stanton of Fine Gael; Thomas Byrne, Eamon Ó Cuív and Darragh O'Brien of Fianna Fáil; Louise O'Reilly and Aengus O Snodaigh of Sinn Féin; Brendan Howlin of Labour; Catherine Murphy of the Social Democrats; Paul Murphy of PBP-AAA; Independent Thomas Pringle; Shane Ross of the Independent Alliance; and Eamon Ryan of the Green Party.

All have been working hard at the task and have given some positive signals of the kind of things they want to implement. A rather unseemly squabble about who should speak on the issue when the Dáil met last week took some of the gloss off the enterprise.

But a final report is expected by the end of this month and a lot of hope still focuses upon that. History tells us that, if either Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil had their mits firmly on the reins of power, no meaningful changes would happen.

But realpolitik suggests that the current Balkanisation of Dáil numbers means that change is now very likely. And that these changes will be strongly tested from the word go. It is not over-stating things to say success will in turn influence hopes of having a stable minority government.

Some of what is emerging is of very clear merit and probably should be put into practice as quickly as possible. These include a committee to schedule and timetable Dáil business, allowing for available time to be split 60/40 between the Government and the opposition.

There is also provision for an appeal to the Ceann Comhairle where a TD feels they have received an inadequate Ministerial answer to parliamentary questions or topical issues which they have raised. That one may require Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl to do a crash-course in the "Wisdom of Solomon."

Given the new Dáil make-up it seems fair and overdue to make it easier for Independent TDs and smaller groups TDs to get speaking time. The old rule of fixing the threshold for a "group" at seven TDs was arbitrary as was the rule that there could only be one "Technical" grouping of deputies.

There is some puzzlement about changes to sitting hours, ostensibly to favour TDs' commitment to committees which will admittedly be central to a new parliamentary approach. One proposal is to end the Friday sittings and have a longer session on Thursdays.

Yet all of these are matters of detail which can be worked upon. They are not as important as delivering a new spirit of competitive cooperation to Dáil proceedings. And that applies to all 158 TDs.

Irish Independent

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