Political reform was an issue in this election, unusual in any case, and perhaps surprising given the state of the economy. But I think people realized that part of the reason the country found itself in the position it did was because of poor political institutions which came inordinate power to the executive and the lack of check on its decisions. All parties proposed changes on political reform, and as the two parties likely to form the government, Fine Gael and Labour, got scores of 74 and 68, the two highest scores, from the Political Reform Scorecard, there is no excuse not to expect changes here.
Ceann Comhairle by secret ballot
Already we’ve names mentioned for the position of Ceann Comhairle, as something to be divided in the spoils of government. But in the New Politics document, Fine Gael have called for the Ceann Comhairle to be elected by secret ballot by all TDs, as is the case with the Speaker of the House of Commons in Westminster. It can’t be done straight away, as the first order of business in a new Dáil is the election of Ceann Comhairle. But Enda Kenny could propose someone while declaring that he intended to appoint them as a Minister of State, someone who would be credible as an interim Ceann Comhairle. Within the first month, the standing orders could be changed, the interim Ceann Comhairle would step down, to be replaced by secret ballot.
A role for all TDs
A few times on Saturday and Sunday, I heard radio commentators ask Independent TDs what the point was of them in the Dáil if they would not hold balance of power. A Dáil election forms the legislature, which has a function in its own right, apart from being a sort of electoral college to elect the executive. Backbenchers, whether government or opposition, should have more power and part of this means being able to propose motions or legislation in private members’ time and reasonably expect that it will be open for a free vote of the Dáil. There are many issues, like stag hunting, which shouldn’t be considered a matter of a confidence vote but a free vote of all members.
In Britain, it is an embarrassment, but not the end of the world, if a government loses a vote it has proposed. Given the majority this government has, and the fact that there will inevitably be backbenchers unhappy with certain government proposals, this could be an opportunity to relax the party whip system, so that it wouldn’t be seen to be such a big deal if they were vote against. In Britain, when they had a vote last year on the introduction of deferred payments for college fees, there were members of both government parties who voted against or abstained.
Fewer but stronger committees
There have also been proposals to strengthen the committee structure, to give it greater powers of scrutiny over legislation and over appointments to state boards. Though Fine Gael intends to give permanent Constitutional recognition to certain committees, the structures could be put in place before such a referendum. The number of committees could be reduced and then strengthened in their power. A distribution of chairs by a d’Hondt or rotational system would reflect the diversity within the Dáil. It is fair that the positions in executive, at cabinet or junior rank, to be composed only of those who have formed the government, but that isn’t undermined by sharing this in the legislature. In the US House of Representatives, the current Chair of the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Domestic Monetary Policy is the radical Republican presidential hopeful, Ron Paul, who would like to shut down the Federal Reserve, something that made Majority Leader John Boehner wary of his appointment. Imagine if Shane Ross or Joe Higgins were to chair our own Banking and Financial Regulation Committee.
There were many other proposals on political reform proposed by the two incoming government parties, these are just a few of them that have most relevance to the Dáil itself which could be started straight away.
Precisely the five I’d have picked myself: Andrew Doyle (FG) – 16th count, Billy Timmins (FG) – 17th count, Simon Harris (FG) – 19th count, Anne Ferris (Lab) – 19th count and Stephen Donnelly (Ind) – 19th count.
This result, in the order elected, mirrors the result in Dublin South, where Independent Shane Ross, one Labour and three Fine Gael were elected.
I did fear through the count, delayed by Dick Roche’s demand for a recount in the unsuccessful hope that he might escape the ignominy of coming tenth, that Sinn Féin’s John Brady might get the fifth seat. Donnelly eventually passed out Brady on the 16th count, on the distribution of Tom Fortune’s votes, a Labour councillor who, like Donnelly, lives in Greystones. On the last count, Donnelly had a margin of 112 votes, and I’ll give credit to Brady for not requesting a partial recount even after they’d become the fashion here. I was impressed with Donnelly’s short campaign focused on the important national economic issue and he will be an asset to the Dáil.
I am glad from a party political level that Wicklow will be one of five constituencies to elect at least three Fine Gael TDs. Our three have a great balance between them in terms of personal strengths, backgrounds and geography. I’ve got to know them since joining the party in the summer of 2009, and am really pleased to see them get in. I remember saying at a meeting in Greystones before Christmas that to get three seats, the party would probably have to poll at least 38%. They got 39%, with a brilliant division of the vote, at 14%, 13% and 12% respectively.
And I have a personal fondness for Anne Ferris, as the candidate standing anywhere in this election whom I’ve known the longest, when I met her in the time coming up to the 1999 local elections, when she was a councillor and office manager for Liz McManus, then the only TD with a full-time constituency office in Bray (new TD Simon Harris has one as well now too).
Don’t mean to sound too gushing, I just am quite pleased, not many constituencies that returned just the ones I’d have picked myself.
Political nerds have a dilemma on election count days. There’s a choice between going to a count centre and seeing the votes as they come in or staying at home or at an election results party to see national results and television analysis and interviews. I opt for the former, having gone to count centres at general and local election counts since 1997 (nine times in all now, including both Lisbon referendums).
The RDS is probably the place where it balances out to a degree. There are enough counts going on that one can get a decent feel for what’s going on and with supporters from around Dublin there, there’s a good buzz around too. One of the best things about count centres is the cordiality between members of different parties. I was tallying for the first time, for Dublin South-Central, and was standing next to a group of Sinn Féin talliers, chatting the odd bit when not concentrating on the votes in front of us. In general party activists can get along well, we can all respect the commitment we have to our different, but the day of the count is the one day when all sniping can really be put aside, as we all experience the emotions of ups and downs, seeing effort pay off or not.
I liked the chance to meet those from the particular cross-party networks I’d built up from my political activity before Fine Gael, those in the PDs and those I’d met through the Lisbon campaign. As someone who experienced the feeling of a count day on the collapse of a party, I appreciated the disappointment of the Green Party members. To a lesser extent too, I can sympathize with Fianna Fáil supporters. I think given everything, they deserved to lose badly in this election, as Mary O’Rourke acknowledged again on Pat Kenny this morning, but one shouldn’t yet dismiss or sneer at the good intentions of their members. I think anyone active in a political party should have found themselves nodding with Conor Lenihan in his reaction to Vincent Browne last month.