Video & Speech | The failure of the Dáil

This year’s Edelman trust barometer indicated that 70% of Irish people do not trust their government leaders to tell the truth.  We are ranked 24 out of the 25 countries surveyed, with only Italy inspiring less trust. Speaking on the Electoral Amendment Bill today, Stephen looked at why that might be the case – why politics is the least trusted profession in this country – and how the fault lies with the culture in the Dáil. Here are some of the key flaws he identified:

  • The Dáil and the Seanad should be the beating heart of Irish politics.  These Houses should be full of rigorous debate but they often feel like a sham or illusion of democracy.
  • Ministers come in during Question Time or the Topical Issue Debate and read the start of their statement.  An Opposition Member will challenge that and make a few points following which the Minister will simply read the second part of the statement regardless of what has been said.
  • Ireland is recognised has having the most centralised Executive power of any Western democracy (in an OECD review of the budgetary process).  In other words we, the Members of the Oireachtas, do not hold our Cabinet to account in the same way as other parliaments do.
  • Recently, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform discussed issuing an invitation to the Governor of the Central Bank to appear before the committee.  Word came from the Executive that the invitation needed to be written in a certain way.  The committees are meant to be at least quasi-independent, but the Finance Committee is not even allowed to write the wording of its own invitations.
  • Deputies are given almost no notice of legislation – we find out on Thursday what is coming up the following week.
  • As a new Deputy coming from a highly quantitative world where things are usually backed up with empirical evidence, theory and so forth, I have noticed a real absence of that here. Regulatory impact analysis is supposed to happen for all major legislation, but it does not.  It did not happen for the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill – there was no poverty impact analysis, regulatory impact analysis or gender impact analysis.  Nobody had worked out how many people the various measures would put into poverty or at risk of poverty.
  • The OSCE ranks Ireland as second worst in its budgetary process – we came 35th of 36 countries surveyed.  On a scoring of the level of data given to Parliament to interrogate a budget, we scored zero out of ten.  In the time given to Parliament to scrutinise the legislation, use the data and come back into the Chamber and try to hold the Government to account, we scored zero out of ten.  It is basically impossible to meaningfully hold the Minister to account on the most important piece of legislation that comes before the House every year.
  • Worse than that, when the capital expenditure programme was announced, we were given just a list of stuff: it did not indicate how it was arrived at and had no technical appendices or decision criteria.  It simply outlined how we would spend more than €30 billion of borrowed money.  In the Chamber I asked the Minister for the technical appendix.  He told me that I could try to get it from the Departments if I liked and the phrase he used was “we were elected to govern”.
  • The Government has used the guillotine on 68% of its own legislation.  In spite of commitments in the programme for Government not to use statutory instruments and the guillotine, on nearly seven out of ten Bills the Government has introduced, it has used the guillotine.  Two weeks ago the guillotine was used on every section of the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill.
  • The Minister of State, Sean Sherlock, debated a statutory instrument on an Internet copyright issue for more than an hour with Catherine Murphy, me and others.  At the end of the debate I asked the Minister of State if he would take on board a single proposal, a single word or a single letter of what was covered during the debate.  He said that he was not changing anything and that he had told us before the debate that he would not change anything.
  • Even if Deputies were given the data we needed and the time to use them, most TDs pretty much have to say what they are told.  They have to toe the line and vote the line as well.  During the referendum campaign on Oireachtas inquiries, all the parties canvassed for a “Yes” vote, but it was defeated.  Many of the Deputies I spoke to privately said they were voting against it and told everyone they knew to vote against it because they had serious concerns about it.
  • We have a ludicrous situation now with Deputy Ó Cuív and the referendum.  He has said that he has agreed not to say publicly what he believes to be true – that people should vote “No”.  When that is the case, is it any wonder that nobody trusts us?  When a politician says what he believes, he is obliged and told to stay quiet.  How dangerous could it be to Fianna Fáil to have one of its prominent members say: “You know what, I respect the party line, but I do not agree with it.  Here is my opinion.  I have been in here a long time and have a lot of experience and here is what I believe”?  I do not know when it became the consensus that parties and the political system as a whole were so allergic to dissent.
  • Article 28.4.1°of the Constitution states: “The Government shall be responsible to Dáil Éireann” – to us.  That means the Government should be responsible and accountable to this House.  My experience over the past year indicates that is not in any way accountable to this House.
  • Birgit

    just out of interest – how many people were in the room with you??

  • Kevin Cunningham

    whats the guillotine?

    • Birgit

      it basically means that the government can limit the discussion time on a bill  so that no real debate can take place. in some cases discussion time was reduced to 1 min 12 per amendment which means bills can really only be waved through. while the guillotine was originally meant to speed up the process especially for bills that have been in the pipeline for a long time, using the guillotine on two thirds of the legislation passed including some laws that are not properly thought out means that the dail amounts to nothing more than a a bit of democratic playacting

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