Bring back the guillotine

Once censured by critics as a government tool to prematurely curtail parliamentary debate, since the abolition of the guillotine, Dáil proceedings have now swung to the other extreme whereby filibustering has, on occasion, bordered on farcical. Minister of State for Public Procurement, Open Government and eGovernment Patrick O’Donovan TD writes.

Following the last General Election, with an inconclusive result, there was a drive by some in Leinster House to focus on the need for Dáil Reform. The term ‘new politics’ emerged as a result. This was a concept which was supposed to establish a ‘modern Dáil’. One of the subsequent changes proposed was the abolition of the legislative guillotine.

The guillotine is a legislative tool which allows for a debate on a piece of legislation to be stopped after an agreed period of time, regardless of what stage the debate is at. This practice was used extensively in the previous Dáil and there is no doubt that it was overused, with the result being that many issues, which should have received a greater level of debate and scrutiny, were stopped short. It was because of this overuse that the practice earned a negative reputation. However, now the decision to fully abolish the guillotine has created an unintended consequence – quite literally the baby, the bath water and the bath have been thrown out.

This was very clear to see when the recent road traffic legislation was before the Dáil. In the absence of the guillotine, in place we had a situation where some TDs could speak continuously without interruption, and often without having any relevance to the matter in hand. They also employed other tactics such as calling quorums in the House, leaving in an attempt to stop the debate and calling votes on innocuous points in the full knowledge that they did not have the requisite number of members needed to make sure that the vote was held. All of this ‘filibustering’ was deployed for one purpose only: to make sure that the debate would not be concluded, and a vote called.

If, however, the guillotine, had been in place this would not have happened. We would have had an agreed finishing time and, regardless of where the debate stood, the mater could have been resolved. For the guillotine to be returned it will require the co-operation of the opposition. This may be a sticking point. Its removal was a corner stone of the so-called ‘new politics’. As such, it will may be difficult for the opposition to swallow the fact that less than two years after its conception, the principle of Dáil reform will have to be revisited.

What will happen if the vacuum left by the guillotine is not filled?

Well, now that we have seen the level that some members of the opposition are prepared to go to, it’s clear that other important government legislation very definitely runs the risk of being stymied by the filibuster. It appears that because the opposition are saving their blushes, ‘new politics’ is simply not up for negotiation. This could mean that legislation currently awaited by the public, and that which has a popular mandate, is endangered. For instance, even those pieces of legislation that are required to give effect to a referendum could be put in doubt.

So, what should happen? There must be a reintroduction of the guillotine on a limited basis. This will prevent the tactic exhibited by a minority of opposition TDs in relation to recent legislation from being pursued in future. If this does not happen, then the very basis for the creation of ‘new politics’ – the need to have a more effective Dáil – will be completely undermined and reduced to a complete sham.

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