Sunday 20 October 2019

Liam Weeks: 'What has changed in era of 'new politics'?'

We were promised a difference in the way politics was conducted, but the same old phoney war drags on between the two main parties, writes Liam Weeks

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin

And so the phoney war between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail continues. We thought it was over a few weeks ago when Micheal Martin announced the renewal of the confidence and supply agreement until 2020.

But this left Fianna Fail looking like the puppet master, pulling Fine Gael's strings.

So, not wishing to be outdone, and desperate to get the last word in before the Christmas break, Leo Varadkar refused to rule out a general election in 2019.

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I've called it a phoney war because we have two leaders battling over a power - to call an election - that in reality neither may possess.

If the Taoiseach decides to wash his hands of Fianna Fail, or Mr Martin withdraws his party's support, the decision on if this warrants an election will instead rest with President Higgins.

This power is assigned to him under article 13.2.2 of the Constitution, which states "the President may in his absolute discretion refuse to dissolve Dail Eireann on the advice of a Taoiseach who has ceased to retain the support of a majority in Dail Eireann".

So, if the President feels that a hypothetical squabble between the two parties is unnecessary, like Tweedledum or Tweedledee who fell out over a rattle, he might refuse a dissolution, and tell Leo and Micheal to kiss and make up.

In other words, the timing of the next election is now not just down to the Taoiseach, as has been the norm up until now.

This is just the latest consequence of our living in an era of 'new politics'.

Heralded in after the last election, it promised a new departure, a change in the way politics was conducted in this country. There was to be greater accountability and transparency, and a greater role for the Dail in the political process.

Critics of new politics claimed that it would result in instability and inefficiency at a time when there was never a greater need for a strong government, one able to keep its eye firmly on the ball without being distracted by domestic trivialities.

These critics have been calling for an election from the moment the current Government was formed, and would welcome a breakdown in relations between the two civil war parties.

But are they correct in their analysis? Has new politics failed to deliver? Would we be better off having an election now to cleanse the Dail of the procrastinators and ideologues, those who prefer talk over action?

Ironically, many of those advocating a return to strong and stable government were the same people who reproached the previous administration for having too much power.

In the Fine Gael-Labour coalition that formed in 2011 with the largest majority in the history of the State, the Dail was effectively bypassed as the now-defunct Economic Management Council was able to rule by diktat.

The record number of 76 first-time TDs elected in 2011 were left pretty powerless. We had a referendum on whether to abolish the Seanad in 2013, but really we could also have had one on the Dail, as the same arguments for the abolition of the upper house could have been levelled against the lower house.

The consequences of this was that there was a mood for a change at the 2016 Dail election. For the first time ever, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael won a combined first preference vote of less than 50pc. Sinn Fein became the clear third party of the system, winning almost four times as many seats as Labour. Independents won seats everywhere, a message of discontent with the party status quo.

And so changes took place. A small minority government was formed. Independents were given seats at Cabinet. Fianna Fail agreed to support Fine Gael only on critical issues, which meant the Dail could finally hold the Government to account. More parliamentary technical groups with more speaking rights were formed. The Ceann Comhairle was elected by secret ballot, and there was reform of the committee system.

This was the new politics that was supposed to facilitate TDs delivering on their apparent potential. But what has it achieved?

Although it is difficult to fully assess the merits of new politics as it is still an ongoing process, there are some tangible areas that can be examined to determine whether it was a valuable experiment, or whether we are better off having an election to call a swift end to this era.

The first area concerns the efficiency of the Dail. Its output can be measured in admittedly crude terms by the volume of legislation produced. In the first year of new politics, the Dail was less productive than usual, passing just 23 bills, compared to 41 in the same period for the previous Dail. Hence why many were quick to christen it the 'do-nothing Dail' (ignoring the many other functions the Dail fulfils, such as scrutiny of legislation and government).

However, this lower level of output may simply have been a teething process as TDs got used to the workings of new politics. In its second year, the Dail's output increased considerably, with 41 bills becoming law.

If the current rate of legislative output continues, this Dail will be no less productive than previous incarnations. A second feature of new politics is a greater role for the 0pposition. Traditionally we have what is called an executive-dominated Dail with the Government being virtually omnipotent in the legislative process.

We might have expected this to change under new politics, as the Opposition now holds twice as many seats as the Government.

In this Dail, legislation is now far more open to amendment by the Opposition. One specific area in which they have influence is private member's bills - legislation proposed from outside of government.

In the first year of this Dail, 100 private member's bills were introduced, a fivefold increase on the average for the equivalent period in the previous four Dails. This number doubled to 200 in the second year of new politics.

In addition, 23 private member's motions were passed in the first two years of this Dail. Between 1937 and 2007 just 10 such motions in total were passed.

A third aspect of new politics that was expected is greater instability. There was a belief that the Government would be regularly defeated, achieve little, and would most likely be a short-term administration.

However, the Government is now two years and eight months in place, not far off the average for government duration in Irish politics. In its first two years, only one of its motions was defeated in the Dail. While it may not have been able to deal with some matters, it was able to resolve the issue of abortion that has dogged many other governments.

While those pushing for an election might be able to indicate a number of areas in which new politics has failed, the current experiment might just be the beginnings of a reform process that will take a considerable number of Dails to see genuine change materialise.

So, would an early election bring an end to new politics? And whose agenda would it suit?

Would it bring an end to the phoney war, or do we want a return to old politics?

Whatever changes new politics or the next election brings, whenever it takes place, one will not be who leads the Government. Since the foundation of the State, it has always been either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael. And this is not likely to change any time soon. Plus ca change.

Dr Liam Weeks is director of the MSc Government & Politics at University College Cork

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