From September 2005 to November 2008 I was a supporter of a government party. Now again, I find myself in the position of government cheerleader. It is great to enjoy days like yesterday. Enda Kenny seemed quite comfortable in his new role. The speech from Simon Harris nominating him, who at 24 is the same age Enda was when he entered the Dáil in 1975, clearly meant a lot to him. Enda himself spoke well, and was able for the odd riposte across the chamber. Of course, supporting the government also means living with and in some small way answering for unpopular decisions. And though the people recognize that the new government can’t be blamed for why there are changes needed, the manner will not always be popular, and it might sometimes be the wrong approach.
As the campaign began in early February, I was reading David Laws’ recent book, 22 Days in May, his account of the negotiations between the Liberal Democrats and both of the two larger parties after last year’s election. Their choices were a minority Labour-LibDem coalition, supporting a minority Conservative government in a confidence and supply arrangement, or full coalition with the Conservatives. They explored all options, but given the perceived need for stable government, a full coalition with a comfortable majority seemed the safest and most likely option, whatever hesitance there was within their party to forming a coalition with the Tories after years of hoping for a centre-left alignment.
In the Irish situation, it was the largest party that had the advantage. Fine Gael came out of the election with 76 seats, short of the 83 required for a majority. As in Britain, full coalition was always the most likely given the perceived stability from a majority government. Unlike the Liberal Democrats, Fine Gael did not explore the other options at all. While it mightn’t have hurt to have tested the possibility of Independent support, coalition seemed the inevitable outcome.
I’m pleased enough with the Programme for Government, but it really is too early to tell it will be like. We will be able to start to judge by the summer, when we have seen the first initiatives from each Minister. But importantly, how well the new government be at renegotiating the interest rate on our EU/IMF loan, and whether Ireland will have to concede on our corporation tax base. This we cannot know from the Programme.
Fine Gael identified a reduction of 145 quangos through consolidation of functions. Let’s hope this is implemented. Both parties had clear commitments to political reform, which will be hard for them to avoid now, which will be at least one area that the new government should be remembered for. I look forward to the social reforms which are to be discussed in the Constitutional Convention, and I would hope to get involved if possible.
It is a compromise between two parties. Of course it would be, such is the nature of coalition. The number of voluntary public sector redundancies, is a compromise between the two manifesto commitments, as is the target itself for deficit reduction of 2015. Fine Gael measures on competitiveness are in the Programme, with the proposed lowering the 13.5% rate of VAT, cutting the travel tax and halving PRSI on low-wage workers.
Aside from headline economic commitments, any Programme for Government will have statements on some interesting side issues. In defence, it commits the government to “enforce the prohibition on the use of Irish airspace, airports and related facilities for purposes not in line with the dictates of international law.” Fair enough, there should have been checks on flights through Shannon to ascertain whether they were being used for transportation of torture victims. But I would also liked to have seen a review of our Triple Lock system, which deprives Ireland of an independent foreign policy by tying it to that of China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States, through their UN Security Council veto?
On bioethics, there is a commitment to formalise parental responsibilities arising from assisted reproduction, something which is of growing importance to clarify. There is also a commitment to change organ donation from an opt-in to an opt-out system, which will be welcome to some, depending on its implementation.
So I look forward to these years, an interesting time for the politics of this country. Though it will all be to small avail if we cannot get a significantly better deal from the IMF and ECB.
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.