Five years ago we entered an election in circumstances which were embarrassing for our country. The outgoing government had just entered a bailout agreement with the Troika of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Unemployment was at 14.3%.
The global economic situation has improved, and Ireland has more than taken advantage of it. We are now the fastest growing economy in the EU, with unemployment at 8.8% and falling, and a steadily improving rate of job creation. We have regained a position of respect within the European Union. This was done under the guidance of the Troika institutions, a program Ireland successfully exited from. Ireland compares very favourably to other countries which were very badly affected by the global economic crisis. This government of Fine Gael and Labour deserves credit for this stewardship of the economy.
No government shifts and improves a country’s budgetary position and economic standing as significantly as has been done here without taking decisions which merit or deserve criticism. This can be particularly said in the area of housing. However, what matters most is that there is a strong environment favouring job creation and growing incomes, to create the resources to tackle these problems, whether privately or by government.
But apart from the improved economic situation, there are many other ways in which we are a changed country since early 2011. We have seen a significant program of positive law reform.
It is now a crime to withhold information on the abuse of children. Our Taoiseach Enda Kenny spoke out strongly in the Dáil, condemning the role of the Roman Catholic Church and the Vatican in covering up the sexual abuse of children, the first Taoiseach to do so in clear and unambiguous terms. Children are now specifically protected in the Constitution, so that their voice can be heard in the legal process and their best interests considered.
Instead of filing in the District Court, in between regular business there, new Irish citizens now swear their allegiance in welcoming and open Citizenship Ceremonies.
After a wait of 21 years, and many governments, we finally had legislation in response to the X Case, which activists had called for since the judgment, legislation which certainly came at political cost, the first change to abortion law in this country since 1861. I would support more extensive reform, but this is as far as our current constitutional position allows, and it made space for debate on the next stage from here.
Local authorities now have the power to alter the local property tax within a range of 15% on either side of a base rate, giving much greater meaning and effect to local elections than before. The next Ceann Comhairle will be elected by secret ballot of TDs, creating a measure of independence from the government.
Reform of minor sentencing now allows for fines by installments, rather than needlessly sending people for short prison sentences.
We had the beginning of the process of school divestment from religious management, though admittedly this has been a process that has been slower than desired.
Gender quotas for candidate selection at general elections were introduced; though it will take more than one election to have an effect on the makeup of the Dáil, it is the beginning of a process.
A new Register of Lobbyists was created to monitor corruption in public services and provision.
The government called a vote on marriage equality, and with so many others too, strongly campaigned for a Yes vote. Both parties did so enthusiastically, and our country had a moment of pride on the world stage when we became the first in the world to vote in support of equal marriage in a popular referendum, in a campaign that captured the public imagination.
Last year also saw the enactment of one of the best gender recognition laws worldwide, with provision within the act itself for progressive review in two years’ time.
The Children and Family Relationships Act was the most comprehensive review of family law since the 1960s, which among its many provisions, gave fathers greater automatic guardianship in cases of cohabitation, allowed cohabiting couples or civil partners as well as married couples to adopt jointly, and provided for donor-assisted reproduction.
Changes to equality law mean that the ethos of a school or hospital can no longer be the basis of employment discrimination solely on the basis of personal characteristics like sexuality, or family status, or any of the other grounds of anti-discrimination.
I will be voting for a return of this government of Fine Gael and Labour. I do not expect it to be returned to office. But I do expect that it will be remembered as a reforming government, and that these many reforms will stand well to this country, improving the lives of those who live here in many small and significant ways, allowing us to continue to become a more open society.
Dún Laoghaire elected 5 TDs in 2007. It was then reduced to 4 seats in this election. With the appointment of Sean Barrett as Ceann Comhairle, if he serves the full term and wishes it he can be elected automatically to the 32nd Dáil. Which would make it a 3-seater.
Not only that. As Shane Ross referred to yesterday, Sean Barrett retired from the Dáil in 2002, deciding not to contest that election, having been elected in 1981 and aged 57. He returned in 2007. If the coming two Dála continue for their full term, he could end up retiring for the second time close to nineteen years after first leaving politics.
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.