The Dáil in the 21st Century by Anthony O’Halloran, Cork: Mercier Press, 2010, hb. 288pp, €29.99, ISBN: 9781856356367
Dr Anthony O’Halloran is a lecturer in ethics and philosophy at Carlow Institute of Technology and holds a PhD in Government from University College Cork. His thesis is that much contemporary media and popular criticism of Dáil Éireann is misplaced. It compares what happens in the Dáil with an ideal of liberal democracy and parliamentary sovereignty that has not existed anywhere in the modern era. This ideal would require parliament to exercise directive power and governments simply to implement the will of the Dáil as arrived at through free deliberation among its members. The ideal was only attained (if even then?) in the nineteenth-century parliament of the United Kingdom. This pre-dates the advent of wide suffrage and the need to make quick decisions on complex matters, developments which necessitated the introduction of a tight party-whipping system which made the ideal unrealisable and impractical.
But the expectations of citizens continue to be shaped by the theory that all power reposes in Dáil Éireann. In our modern complex and globalised world, power is dispersed much more widely. While a Minister may be theoretically accountable to the Dáil for the fact that hospital X-rays have not been examined by radiologists, the real responsibility lies elsewhere. This gap between theory and practice is corrosive of respect for the Dáil even though it is the theory and not the Dáil which is out of date.
The assumption is that TDs should be legislators. The truth is that individual Dáil members do not have much influence on the content of legislation. The chance of an amendment to a bill, which the Minister and his officials do not want, being accepted, is almost nil. Many sections of important bills are not examined at all. Long ministerial amendments are often introduced at the last minute to accommodate the rhythm of work of the civil service rather than that of the Dáil.
Answers to parliamentary questions are often evasive and there is no appeal mechanism to which a TD can turn if he or she has good grounds to be unhappy with the answer. The facility to ask supplementary questions is often used as much to generate sound bites as it is to probe inadequate answers. Time limitations, and the need to rotate questions among all the parties, prevent a forensic line of questioning being developed. Partly because of the incapacity of Dáil questioning to achieve full accountability from Government, we have had to turn to Tribunals of Inquiry to get at the facts.
Anthony O’Halloran does not dispute these criticisms but he says that the Dáil has strengthened its role as a deliberative body in recent years. While it rarely exercises direct power over government decisions, it has developed its role as a deliberative body. The committee system has become stronger. Interest groups who find it hard to get a hearing from the civil service can often get it from a Dáil committee. Television broadcasting of Dáil and committee proceedings has also helped. The fact that the Oireachtas Commission, not the Department of Finance, settles the details of the Dáil’s own expenditure makes a big difference.
I think the author’s presentation is a little too kind. Dáil debates still take place in a chamber which is virtually empty because everything is time-tabled, and speakers increasingly read scripts in breach of the rules. Interruptions, which are supposed to be encouraged, are actually discouraged. There is still no sanction on a minister who gives an inadequate or incomplete answer to a parliamentary question. Many sections of important bills are still not debated in detail during committee stage.
A solution to some of these difficulties could be found in one reform which is not touched on at all in this book - an enhancement in the powers of the Ceann Comhairle. The Ceann Comhairle should be given the power to require a Minister to come back with a new answer, if the Ceann Comhairle at his/or her complete discretion deems a reply to a parliamentary question as incomplete. He/She should also have the discretion to disregard lists of speakers provided by the party whips, and call on members to speak on the basis of time spent sitting in the chamber listening to other members. Likewise the Ceann Comhairle should actively encourage orderly interruptions of speeches to promote dialogue. He/She should have a role in the time-tabling of committee stage debates to ensure that all important sections are discussed.
In order to have the mandate from members to exercise this authority, without the challenges to the rulings of the chair which have become commonplace, the Ceann Comhairle should cease to be chosen by the Taoiseach and should, instead, be elected by a secret ballot of members.
This is a very worthwhile book, which should be read by all who write editorials and otherwise comment on the so called decline of Dáil Éireann.
Former Taoiseach and former EU Ambassador to the United States of America.