Monday 18 February 2019

Liam Weeks: '100 years on, and what has the Dail ever done for us?'

As the Irish parliament reaches its centenary tomorrow, the verdict must be - 'can do better', writes Liam Weeks

The first Dail meets in January 1919, as reported in ‘ The London Illustrated News’. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
The first Dail meets in January 1919, as reported in ‘ The London Illustrated News’. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Liam Weeks

One hundred years ago tomorrow, The Irish Times reported on a 'futile and unreal' gathering of a 'body of young men', who it said 'have not the slightest notion of that [British] Empire's power and resources and not a particle of experience in the conduct of public affairs'.

The gathering referred to was the first meeting, on January 21, 1919, of our national parliament, Dail Eireann, then a revolutionary assembly acting in defiance of its British overlords.

Since the Act of Union of 1800, Ireland had not had its own parliament, and so the formation of this new assembly was a key moment in the development of our parliamentary democracy.

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Comprising rebel Sinn Fein MPs elected in December 1918 to the British House of Commons, the first Dail issued a declaration of independence from the British Empire, and published a provisional constitution, which The Irish Times, not sparing in its acerbity, described as a 'fantastic mixture of autocracy and artlessness'.

The same newspaper was quick to condemn the revolutionaries, stating unambiguously that 'the more quickly Ireland becomes convinced of the folly which elected them, the sooner'. Of course, history shows The Irish Times's aspirations were not fulfilled, the Dail survived, and its 32nd incarnation is now commemorating the efforts of its fledgling predecessors.

There have been a number of events over the past few months to mark 100 years of the Dail, which will culminate this week in a special centenary sitting in the Mansion House, the scene of its first proceedings.

But, does the Dail have a record that deserves these celebrations?

It is important to commemorate a milestone event such as the foundation of our parliament, but rather than patting themselves on the back for what they have achieved, should our TDs instead be engaged in some critical self-reflection on what they have failed to realise?

Take the aforementioned Declaration of Independence of 1919 as an example. Two of its primary aims were: 'We ordain that the elected representatives of the Irish people alone have power to make laws binding on the people of Ireland', and 'We solemnly declare foreign government in Ireland to be an invasion of our national right which we will never tolerate, and we demand the evacuation of our country by the English garrison'.

Partition ensured the second aspiration was not realised, while, for better or worse, our membership of the EU has removed the first.

Consider also the democratic programme issued by the Dail on its first day. It set out what were seen then as a number of radical economic and social principles, including: 'that no child shall suffer hunger or cold from lack of food, clothing, or shelter, but that all shall be provided with the means and facilities requisite for their proper education and training as citizens of a free and Gaelic Ireland', and that 'all right to private property must be subordinated to the public right and welfare'.

Would the TDs who set out these goals be happy with the performance of their successors over a hundred years in abiding by these principles?

It would be unfair, however, to hold up the first Dail as a shining example that all other Dails have failed to live up to.

The reality is that the Dail of 1919 being commemorated this week was a monocultural, monothetic entity. It comprised only one party, a group of nationalist revolutionaries not reflective of the wider electorate whom it claimed to represent. It was more middle-class and, perhaps paradoxically, more radical than the population as a whole. There was no labour party, no farmers' party, no independents and very few women.

While some nationalists might not like to admit it, for many people there were more pressing matters than our relationship with Britain. So, at the first competitive Dail election (in June 1922) when the electorate had a genuine choice, 40pc of them rejected Sinn Fein and voted for parties and candidates standing on other issues.

The first Dail established a pattern of exclusivity, with many opinions and minorities not catered for, a pattern which has since been replicated in every 'pale, male and stale' Dail, right up to the present day.

If we compare all 32 Dails to date to the wider population, they have always been older, more middle-class, more educated and less diverse.

All Dails have had a very poor record in electing women (the 32nd Dail is 80th in the world rankings for the proportion of women in parliament - just behind the UAE), a poor record in electing a comparatively high number of dynastic politicians (which smacks of an element of nepotism) and a poor record in electing TDs unable to hold governments to account.

TDs themselves echo these concerns about the effectiveness of the Dail. A study of first-time TDs in 2011 by Mary C Murphy in UCC found a considerable number frustrated by the straitjacket environment of the Dail, with some calling it 'unproductive', 'restricted', and 'prohibitive'.

TDs who arrive with high hopes of affecting change are quick to get a reality check as they realise how ineffective the Dail is against the power of the government and political parties.

The 2011 study concluded 'new TDs struggle with the complexity of Ireland's legislative process and the detail of Dail rules and procedures'.

Is it any wonder then that the Dail has not lived up to its legislative supremacy as the body with 'the sole and exclusive power of making laws for the state', as defined in article 15 of the Constitution?

Is it any surprise then that the Dail has been called a 'puny parliament' by one of the founders of political science in Ireland, and that most comparative academic studies find it to be one of the weakest in Europe?

Parliaments in most countries have three central functions: appointing and dismissing governments, holding them to account and legislating.

On all three counts, successive Dails have performed poorly. Governments are formed by parties, not parliaments; governments are far more likely to be accountable to the media than to the Dail; and governments, not parliaments, legislate. Between 1937 and 2007, there were only 10 private members' bills - legislation emanating from outside of government - passed in the Dail.

So, what is there for the Dail to celebrate this week?

Before you conclude The Irish Times was correct in its assumptions 100 years ago, all is not lost for our parliament to realise its potential and fulfil the aspirations of the State's founding fathers.

In particular, the much-maligned 'new politics' of the past few years has delivered considerable institutional reforms which have altered the relationship between the Dail and government.

The Ceann Comhairle is now elected by secret ballot, meaning the chair is no longer a creature of government. The Taoiseach has lost the prerogative to set the agenda of the Dail, which is instead decided on by a business committee representative of all Dail groups. Committee chairs are allocated on a proportional basis, rather than being a fiefdom of government. For the first time, there is now also pre-legislative scrutiny of bills by committees, increasing the role of the Dail in this process.

It is difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of these reforms just yet, so it remains a case of 'some done, a lot more to do' if the Dail wishes to have a genuine record it would like to commemorate. A milestone of achievements rather than just a milestone of time.

Here's to the next (and hopefully better) 100 years. Happy birthday, Dail Eireann.

Dr Liam Weeks is director of the MSc in government and politics at University College Cork

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