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'The elephant in the room': Government's Dáil reforms do little to appease opposition

It’s no surprise that the opposition doesn’t think the government has done enough Dáil reform, but TDs think that even some changes that have been introduced aren’t working.

The Dáil chamber (File photo)
The Dáil chamber (File photo)
Image: Screengrab via Oireachtas TV

WITH THE TROIKA gone, unemployment down and the economy showing signs of growth those on the government benches can justifiably come back to the Dáil today with smiles on their faces.

But one way the opposition might bring them down to earth, aside from the obvious controversies of Irish Water and pylons, is by raising the thorny issue of Dáil reform and, in their view, the lack of it.

On this it appears the government can’t win. While the Dáíl is sitting earlier and for longer with more opportunities for opposition to put forward their own motions and bills than before, even some of the reforms that have come in have been criticised.

Before Christmas, there were three events which neatly sum-up the current problems facing the Dáil.

First, straight-talking Leo Varadkar admitted the government has too much control over the agenda. Second, there were farcical scenes when absent TDs meant ministers couldn’t answer questions.

Finally, nearly all of the opposition walked-out of the chamber in response to the coalition showing “fundamental disrespect” by guillotining (curtailing) debate on the Water Services Bill.

“Tokenistic”, “ineffective”, and “window-dressing” are just some of the words and phrases applied to the changes brought in over the last three years and we can expect to hear more complaints in the year ahead.

While TDs will complain of various technical and logistical problems, the overriding message is that the government has too much control over what the Dáil does. To them there appears to be no real separation of the executive (the government) and the legislature (the Dáil).

‘Government control the agenda’

Independent TD and Technical Group whip Catherine Murphy describes it as “the elephant in the room”.

“The government completely control the agenda of the Dáil and that is not how the Constitution has set out how things should be,” she said. “The Constitution says the Dáil holds the government to account.”

A big complaint is Friday sittings, a day set aside for discussion of private members’ business i.e. bills not put forward by government. Tere are no votes held, attendance is poor and Murphy and the Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin whips have little time for them.

Sinn Féin’s Aengus Ó Snodaigh said the sittings are “window-dressing” and mean TDs have to spend an extra day away from their constituencies: “The Friday sittings have shown that they don’t work, people don’t engage as much. I’ve argued that that can be done on a Tuesday morning.

“The argument from government is that there is the Cabinet meeting, but there is no requirement for a vote to be held and the opposition wouldn’t mind if there is a junior minister to allow debate to be held on that day, rather than taking away another day for the constituency.”

Fianna Fáil’s Seán Ó Fearghail said the sittings on Friday are “tokenistic” and pointed out that none of the legislation that has been discussed in the sittings has become law.

Sittings were originally held on the first Friday of every month and have since increased to two-a-month, but that’s not something Murphy thinks is right: “We would rather have one day, do it right with votes on that day where you get a full attendance… it has got to be meaningful.”

Government chief whip Paul Kehoe insisted that a number of bills have gone to committees and that the process takes time.

“There is a process that has to be gone through with a bill,” he insists, adding that Friday sittings allow senior ministers to participate.

Ó Fearghail also thinks questions to ministers and particularly the Taoiseach are not working, saying: “Questions are refused or referred on to others. The whole business of Taoiseach’s questions is largely ineffective. He comes in and answers questions for an hour, you get various questions grouped together and the opportunity to go into detail is not there.”

‘Populist’

He also believes that the “populist” move to reduce the number of committees has resulted in less engagement with interest groups and time available to study legislative proposals. An issue raised by the committee chairpersons themselves this week.

There have also been complaints about Private Members’ Business being held at 7.30pm on Tuesdays and Wednesday when “it does not get any coverage” according to Ó Snodaigh. He wants it held earlier in the day, a change Kehoe said he is open to.

Sinn Féin is also proposing that half-an-hour be allotted outside of the Order of Business for the opposition to question the government chief whip on the legislative programme and its progression, but Kehoe points out that such information on the progress of the legislative agenda can all be found on the Oireachtas website.

But Kehoe also said this week that he is “absolutely” open to opposition proposals and said that when the last round of reforms were announced, more were promised. “It’ll be a discussion over the next couple of months,” he said.

But Ó Fearghail doubts the government’s willingness to change things.

“One of the things I find frustrating when I go to a whips’ meeting is that the government side tell me: ‘This is what your people did’. Look, we got a message, I got a message, Fianna Fáil got a message in 2011, it was that the people wanted politics to change,” he said.

“We’re changing, we’re working towards change, but when I go along to a whips’ meeting all I get is: ‘We’re doing this because your crowd did it when you were in government’. That doesn’t represent change to me.”

Read: Committee chairs have ‘serious concerns’ over workload and say they need more staff

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Hugh O'Connell

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