Thursday 19 September 2019

John Downing: 'Fixed terms for the Dáil seemed a good idea but UK raises doubt'

 

'As we look at the absurd and farcical goings-on in the Westminster Parliament, we find the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 being as big a determinant of events as Boris Johnson’s bluster and Jeremy Corbyn’s limited political appeal.' Photo: ©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/Handout via REUTERS
'As we look at the absurd and farcical goings-on in the Westminster Parliament, we find the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 being as big a determinant of events as Boris Johnson’s bluster and Jeremy Corbyn’s limited political appeal.' Photo: ©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/Handout via REUTERS
John Downing

John Downing

Bertie Ahern prided himself on piloting two shaky enough coalitions through full five-year terms over the years 1997-2002 and again 2002-2007. He did not need a thing called the 'Fixed Parliament Term Act' which suddenly has become a big talking point in the Brexit black farce on our neighbouring island this week.

Full Dáil terms defied the usual experience of political calamity pulling down governments, or the Taoiseach of the day sniffing the political wind and deciding it was a good time to "go to the country" seeking a firmer and longer grip on power. Many calamities bringing down governments remain in the political folklore: Noel Browne's Mother and Child scheme in 1951; Jim Kemmy's vote against VAT on children's shoes in 1982; Albert Reynolds and paedophile priests in 1994, and many others.

Tales of Taoisigh miscalculating the public mood in a botched early run to the country are also meat and drink for political anoraks. Again take your pick from things like Liam Cosgrave's election call in June 1977; Charlie Haughey's bid in 1989, or John Bruton's call in June 1997.

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As we look at the absurd and farcical goings-on in the Westminster Parliament, we find the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 being as big a determinant of events as Boris Johnson's bluster and Jeremy Corbyn's limited political appeal.

The law creates a strict five-year period between general elections with only a small range of exceptions. It stipulated that after an election in May 2015, the next elections would follow on the first Thursday of May every five years.

The two exceptions are two-thirds of all MPs agreeing an early general election, as happened in 2017. Or, if a no-confidence motion in government is passed and no alternative government is confirmed by the Parliament within 14 days.

At first glance this looked a good thing for Ireland also. Politicians encountering trouble are obliged to find solutions other than dragging voters to the polls. And it ended the undemocratic power of a prime minister to call an election whenever. In Ireland it could oblige politicians of all parties and none to work together, especially in an era where overall Dáil majorities are proving very elusive.

But enter the law of unintended consequences. By teatime yesterday there was a chance of a very serious case of stalemate emerging. Boris Johnson, without a parliament majority, was most unwilling to undo all his public vows and seek another Brexit extension.

But Mr Johnson was also struggling to get the necessary two-thirds majority of MPs required under the 2011 law to authorise him calling a general election. Those of us dreading a no-deal outcome will have said thank God for that 2011 act - but we must also reflect on the medium to longer term.

Of itself, it is a mixed bag which does not create stability.

Irish Independent

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