While the economy will take priority, the Government also plans to start a debate about the future of Ireland’s constitution. The shape of the Oireachtas and the format for its elections are the main areas where change is expected.
The Programme for Government describes the Constitution as “well- established and tested” but says it must also be updated to meet the challenges of the 21st century. The Government’s main priorities are threefold, but subject to public approval in a referendum:
• abolish the Seanad;
• allow Oireachtas committees to carry out full investigations;
• protect the rights of citizens to communicate in confidence with public representatives.
The Government has also pledged a referendum on the proposed children’s rights amendment, and a more technical amendment to allow cuts in judges’ salaries is also on the cards.
Polling day has not yet been announced but holding it alongside the next presidential election (expected in October) would probably improve the turnout.
The Seanad has had a chequered history. Its predecessor accommodated minorities (e.g. former unionists) but was abolished by Éamon de Valera in 1936 as he claimed it obstructed him. The modern Seanad was established by the Constitution in the following year and has always combined a mixture of political appointees, candidates elected by Trinity and NUI graduates, vocational panel members and unsuccessful Dáil candidates.
A unicameral (one-chamber) system would be unprecedented in Ireland but is the norm in Scandinavia, the Baltic states and eastern Europe. Ominously, it is also common in authoritarian states.
In the reconstituted Dáil Éireann would need stronger internal checks and balances built into it.
The less urgent matters will be considered by a constitutional convention, to report within 12 months of its foundation. Its format is still being drawn up.
A report from the convention will provide home-grown answers to the questions before it, rather than copying other countries. It will also be put to a referendum and six issues are to be reviewed, although the list is not exhaustive:
· the Dáil’s electoral system;
· the participation of women in public life;
· presidential elections; reducing the voting age;
· removing blasphemy from the Constitution; and
· same-sex marriage.
The Government’s own proposals are for a five-year presidential term, with overseas voting rights, a voting age of 17 (down from 18), tying political party funding to the number of female candidates, and cutting the number of TDs after this year’s census is published.
This will also involve a broad debate over social policy. Liberal campaigners have demanded same-sex marriage whereas the Constitution holds to its traditional definition (Article 41), reflecting the views of the main churches.
On women, Article 41 states that “mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home.” This would have protected women from exploitation when it was written but now appears outdated. Women currently hold 25 of the 166 seats in the Dáil.
The Constitution states that the “publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter” is an offence, currently covered by the Defamation Act 2009. Secularists have called for this law’s repeal on free speech grounds. The wording ties in with the Catholic ethos of the Constitution i.e. that the state shall hold God’s name “in reverence, and shall respect and honour religion.”
According to the Government, “an over- powerful Executive has turned the Dáil into an observer of the political process rather than a central player”.
Reforms inside the Dáil would bring about fewer but stronger committees. A new ‘investigations, oversight and petitions committee’ is proposed, along the same lines as the Public Accounts Committee, with a senior opposition TD acting as chair. It could act as a “clearing house” for public compla ints, passing them on to the relevant body.
All state bodies will be required to answer written parliamentary questions, although an exception will be made for commercial arm’s length bodies. Chief executives will regularly attend relevant Dáil committee meetings to answer oral questions.
A one question per TD rule during question time should allow more representatives to take part, and An Ceann Comhairle will be free to judge whether a Minister has answered a question or not.
The electoral commission commitment is carried over from the previous Government. Spending limits for all elections are also proposed. Political donations to parties and candidates will be limited to €2,500 and €1,000 respectively; the current limits are €6,348.69 for parties and €2,539.48 for candidates. A ban on corporate donations is also possible.
A statutory register of lobbyists will also be established, with rules for lobbying also introduced. Outgoing politicians will have to wait until reaching retirement age before they claim their pensions, and will also be banned from covering their former brief in a private sector job until two years have passed; the latter rule will also apply to senior public servants.
In future, the Dáil will meet four days a week, with a six-week summer recess and shorter Christmas and Easter breaks.
The Government promises to use fewer guillotine motions and will set aside Fridays for committee and private members’ business.
A standard minimum of two weeks between each Bill stage is designed to increase debating time. Committee weeks, the last in each month, will clear the agenda for committee business apart from question times. A full ‘European week’ will be devoted to debates on EU policy each year.
The programme is the product of two parties with plenty of opposition experience. Frustration shows in the quote about “one junior Minister reading out scripts on behalf of a number of Departments about a range of issues of which he or she knows nothing.”
As for the current opposition, Fianna Fáil put forward a modest set of ideas during the election campaign, the most radical being a list system for electing some TDs. List systems automatically benefit smaller parties; the Greens and Sinn Féin concurred.
Sinn Féin demands a complete revamp, including a new constitution and presidential voting rights for northerners. The North’s 18 Westminster MPs would be accorded Dáil membership under its plans.
A large government majority means that most of the proposals will pass through the Dáil easily, although that majority also gives substantial influence to the backbenchers in each governing party.