Peter Finnegan, the Clerk of Dáil Éireann and Secretary General of the Houses of the Oireachtas Service, discusses his role and how the running of national parliament has changed over recent years.
In 2013, when predecessor Kieran Coughlan retired after 40 years in the Oireachtas, Peter Finnegan was selected as Acting Clerk before successfully being appointed as Clerk in January 2016.
Traditionally, there are three core strands to the position currently held by Finnegan. The first is the procedure-focused role as Clerk of the Dáil. Second, is the remit as Secretary General of the Houses of the Oireachtas Service. Third, is the role as Chief Executive of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission. In addition to this, the Clerk has a number of ex officio roles including Registrar of Political Parties, membership of the Standards in Public Office Commission and membership of the Constituency Commission.
Outlining this multifaceted role, Finnegan explains: “The Clerk essentially is the main procedural advisor and has overall responsibility for the procedural running of the Dáil and, ultimately, the Business Committee. I work very closely with the Ceann Comhairle in relation to day-to-day business.”
However, the ‘new politics’ has changed the dynamic of the Oireachtas somewhat. Whereas previously, there was a traditional government whip system, now the Business Committee agrees the weekly agenda of business in the Dáil. “There is a much more active involvement, both by myself and the Ceann Comhairle, in the business dimension since the establishment of this Dáil,” emphasises the Clerk.
“It meets every Thursday and agrees the business for the following week and sets an outline plan for the week after that. Typically, you’re involved in dealing with issues that arise because, obviously with a Government that doesn’t have a majority in the House, the dynamic is very different.”
The aim of the Business Committee, therefore, is to act by consensus. “There’s a process of negotiation among parties and the role of the Ceann Comhairle is to chair that and help the Business Committee to reach consensus. It’s an enormous change. There are certain basic rules that still apply in that the Government has the prerogative in relation to government business that is being taken in government time and the opposition decides what business they take in opposition time. But obviously in this Dáil we have more opposition time,” outlines Finnegan.
Having sat through meetings over the last two years, the Clerk detects a sense of shared ownership between the parties that had not existed previously and expects this arrangement to exist well into the future. “In practice, there’s more negotiation in the tabling of government business and frequently you’ll find a lot of give and take. It’s been hugely helpful in that many of the instances of disorder on the floor of the Dáil arose, not because of substantive policy issues, but whether we should have two or three hours of time, or whether there should be a guillotine or not. All of that is now relatively resolved by the Business Committee.”
Simultaneously, a wider process of reform has kept Finnegan occupied in recent years. On the first sitting day of the 32nd Dáil, a motion was passed to establish an all-party Standing Sub-Committee on Dáil Reform chaired by Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl. Over a period of eight weeks, parties made submissions and the Houses of the Oireachtas staff worked in terms of international parliamentary best practice to propose a package of reforms. The subsequent report was published in May 2016 “which brought about fairly dramatic changes in the running of the Dáil”.
“In practice, there’s more negotiation in the tabling of government business and frequently you’ll find a lot of give and take.”
One major aspect of Dáil reform concerned the committee system, which has since been greatly expanded. “We have 24 committees at this stage and one of the features of this Dáil which didn’t happen in the last one is the establishment of special Oireachtas committees. We’ve had four of them so far: one on the issue of housing, then we had the healthcare special committee, we had water and we had the Eighth Amendment. Each has been a success.
“Essentially, they’re dealing with difficult policy issues that need a consensus approach and the Government has adopted the line that ‘we’re a minority government, we can’t solve this alone; we need to build a consensus’. The special committee model has achieved that, I think.”
Acknowledging that special committee members are inevitably better informed on a particular issue than the rest of the house, Finnegan states: “You’re hoping at the end of that process, that the report that is produced will inform the wider debate. That’s what it’s about.”
Special committees deal with significant issues and as such, an appropriate level of resourcing is required to reflect this. “We want them to succeed and we invest significant resources into these committees, in terms of staffing, in terms of specialist expertise if there’s a need for consultancy, on the research side and particularly on the legal side,” says Finnegan.
Parliamentary Budget Office
An additional enhancement of the committee system, therefore, is the establishment of the Committee on Budgetary Oversight. Conscious of a weakness in the area of ex-ante scrutiny of budgetary matters, the OECD made a recommendation which amounted to the creation of such a committee.
“We knew we needed a Budget Oversight Committee for the political scrutiny, but that had to be supported and the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) was the means to do that. The PBO was the big-ticket item that came out of Dáil reform. I think there was an acknowledgement on all sides of the need for such an office. We were one of the few parliaments that didn’t have one and both government and opposition could see the advantages,” he explains.
Annette Connolly was appointed as Director of the Parliamentary Budget Office and leads a team of 10 which has produced 12 reports so far, which have included the ‘Rainy Day Fund’, Budget 2018, Local Property Tax and the EU Semester.
“If in normal circumstances you would have six to eight Bills enacted from private members, that, to me, would be a very good return.”
“From an opposition point of view, it ensures that government spending proposals are challenged, that there’s a rigour in terms of the analysis and that there is equality in terms of the expertise between parliament and government which is very helpful. Equally, from a government point of view, some of the stuff that emerges from the opposition is subject to a degree of analysis as well, which avoids situations whereby claims are made about proposals which could, in due course, turn out to be something different.”
Office of the Parliamentary Legal Advisor
Likewise, under Dáil reform, the Office of the Parliamentary Legal Advisor undertook an enhanced role in order to better assist backbench members in drafting legislation and to provide advice on all legislation coming before the Dáil. Previously, an asymmetrical relationship existed between the parliamentary office, as it stood, and the Office of the Attorney General.
Acknowledging the “excellent parliamentary legal advisor service, headed up by Melissa English”, Finnegan explains that “it is a case of scaling that operation up and looking at the overall structure of it”. This upscaling requires the creation of a senior position within the Office – the equivalent of an Assistant Secretary – to ensure that it will in some way be comparable with the Attorney General’s Office. “That allows you to put in place a proper organisational structure beneath it, including a drafting service, which is hugely critical,” Finnegan elaborates.
Indeed, one of the more distinctive features of the 32nd Dáil has been the influx in Private Members’ Bills; approximately 180 so far. Drafting legislation is a serious endeavour which can have significant implications, and it is a skill that is in scarce supply. Now the Houses of the Oireachtas Service has employed a former parliamentary draftsman to strengthen this remit. “It’s not going to be easy, but between having some in-house expertise, a number of our people completing a drafting course in King’s Inns and a panel of drafters who are barristers specialising in that area, our view is that we can get there and produce legislation to the required quality,” asserts the Clerk.
For the first time, within this new dynamic, deputies find themselves in a situation where there is a realistic prospect of getting decent legislation enacted. “The issue for us is that, from our experience, only a proportion of those Private Members’ Bills will ever be seriously considered for enactment. Lots of those Bills are published with a view to perhaps capitalise on a particular issue that is in the media or something similar and that’s it. So, we have to design our process to reflect that.
“Of the Private Members’ Bills, there are four which have been enacted in this Dáil so far. Given the volume of Bills, you’d expect a higher number to be enacted and that is going to be the challenge going forward. Being realistic, you’re never going to get anywhere near the same number of Private Members’ Bills as Government Bills. If in normal circumstances you would have six to eight Bills enacted from private members, that, to me, would be a very good return.”
Often Private Members’ Bills tend to focus in on niche areas, which are perhaps not government priorities, but nonetheless merit legislation. One current example is Alan Kelly’s Bill on micro-breweries; a short piece of legislation which will allow people on micro-brewery tours to have a drink at the end.
Outreach and engagement
The Houses of the Oireachtas Communications Unit is now into its tenth year and a considerable responsibility of the unit’s remit is the provision of outreach services. “We have in the region of 100,000 visitors to Leinster House every year and we provide tours for those people around the parliament. Our view going forward is that we should enhance the visitor experience,” explains Finnegan.
“We’ve also been focusing in on the education side of things as a priority. We started with this six or seven years ago when we had a schools’ programme. With the recession, we had to scale that back, but now we’re rebuilding the programme and have appointed Conor Reale as Education Officer. Conor is producing a lot of online resources, including lesson plans and things like that. It’s an important area for us.”
In addition, Oireachtas TV is now broadcasting 24/7, 365 days a year and while realistic about the niche nature of the channel, Finnegan regards it as a fantastic vehicle for events taking place within the Houses of the Oireachtas which attract significant public interest.
“We’re spending around €5 million a year on broadcasting. It’s a big operation. On a normal sitting day, we have six studios going to cover four committees, the Dáil and the Seanad. Therefore, within the unit we would have about 40 people working, including camera operators, sound operators, directors and production assistants. At one stage, the scale of our operation was second only to RTÉ.
“We continue to invest money because once you move into the broadcasting space, you have to keep up with the technology. You can’t allow yourself to fall behind. It’s that type of sector. Fortunately, we’ve been able to do that.”
For the Houses of the Oireachtas, 2018 will mark several notable centenaries. These include extension of the franchise under the Representation of the People Act (1918), the subsequent election of Constance Markievicz and the 1918 General Election as a precursor to the formation of the first Dáil in January 1919.
“We have a programme which Derek Dignam and the Communications Unit are developing. There will be various events this year including a number of symposia. In February, the Ceann Comhairle travelled over to the Irish embassy in London and a facsimile portrait of Constance Markievicz was presented to the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow. This was a nice Anglo-Irish event, which, given the current circumstances, reflects the relationship between the two countries,” outlines Finnegan.
The most immediate future-proofing project for the Houses of the Oireachtas Service is the Leinster House restoration and conservation work. Describing this as a “once in a generation job”, the Clerk emphasises: “The building is in a very poor state of repair structurally, in terms of stonework and roofing. There’s a major piece of work being done that will hopefully see us right for another 50 or 60 years, bringing the building back to its original condition. The works were undertaken just before Christmas by Tipperary-based Duggan Brothers Contractors and they will be on-site for around 15 months.”
“In February, the Ceann Comhairle travelled over to the Irish embassy in London and a facsimile portrait of Constance Markievicz was presented to the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow.”
Finnegan also recognises the shortage of accommodation as a constraint in terms of services and operations. “We have four committee rooms and with 24 committees in this Dáil. There is severe pressure on space because committees meet on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. We also need proper visitor facilities and I would love to see a visitor centre as part of a future development. The challenge is that you have to be near Leinster House, because this is where the action happens and a second challenge is that there is a shortage of accommodation in the Dublin 2 area. One thing that we do have is space here on the precincts of the site which is hugely valuable and we need to look at how we utilise this. We’re actively looking at options in that respect. We have to be creative.”
Another priority area is technology. “We’re undertaking a big digital transformation programme at the moment, spending in the region of €11 million on IT. I think at the end of it we’ll see a very different type of organisation. With societal demands, you have to have a parliament with the ability to respond and meet these needs. We envisage a situation where the range of services will continue to grow. That’s the space we’re in.
“My own aspiration is to have a parliament that everyone is proud of. It is a place that people can visit, they can view it online and the material produced here is of a high quality. This fosters a respect for the institution which is important for any democracy.”