Michael Williams is a retired solicitor; he practiced as a lawyer for 30 years. He left the firm at which he was a partner to become a Professional Mediator. He has served on the Board of Academy of Family Mediators, and chaired its Ethics Committee. He is also the author of Serving the People?: The Need for Reform in the Irish Legal System (Liffey Press; 2013), which argues for major reform in the Irish legal system, and he has contributed to many other media outlets on Court reform.
The People, we are told, have spoken, and have demanded Dáil reform. Let us not ask whether politicians, who presume to summarise in a phrase so trite and meaningless what two million people have put in their two million ballot papers, deserve to lose two million votes. Instead let us be glad they recognise that reform is needed in how the Dáil does its work.
Dáil Éireann has two functions, of which making law is the more important, with “holding the Government to account” a minority occupation, in every sense. Its processes are unhelpful to each function. They call – even scream – for improvement, though someone who has never served in the Oireachtas, or seldom even been in the building, is not competent to prescribe. But an outsider can see one thing that insiders who speak of reform have not yet mentioned: improving how the Dáil does its work may make life easier for TDs, but will not improve how it serves us unless the quality of its members is improved. A Dáil that is regulated so that TDs will discuss, draft, scrutinise, and amend legislation carefully and conscientiously, and that provides an effective forum for criticism of government policy and actions, will have the potential to serve us well. But its value will depend on how TDs use their powers. If we continue to be served by politicians who make no contribution to the legislative process, who appear in the Chamber only to walk through the voting lobby, or to shout down speakers from other parties, Dáil reform may be pleasant for them, but will be useless to us.
So, will “Dáil reform” include reforming the quality of our TDs? Will we continue to return “good constituency men”, whose working life is devoted to running errands for their constituents, encouraging their helplessness, and making no real contribution to the work a TD should do? Or will reform include a genuine attempt to exclude “clientism” or as it is sometimes called, “clientelism”?
This is not a new problem. During the run-up to the election of the 27th Dáil, three TDs were asked to explain why they had contributed so little to the 26th, and they replied as follows:
“If a constituent has a particular problem you can sort it out much quicker for the price of a phone call. I get on very well with the Ministers and the Department officials, and I prefer working in this way”.
“I go straight to the Department and if I get it sorted out I ring the constituent. He appreciates it more because he knows I am not looking for any publicity.”
“I make the odd contribution to a Bill, but it is not easy to find time to sit down and write a speech and deliver it. Usually I am too preoccupied with all the problems in the area I represent.”
None of the three are members of the 32nd Dáil, but their replacements are – some after heading the poll.
Nor is clientism confined to backbench TDs. Think of the £7m bypass Albert Reynolds provided for Longford in the ninties, although it had no traffic problem, or, more recently, Mary Coghlan bringing back to her Donegal constituency every Friday the passports her supporters had asked her to get for them, and distributing them over the weekend to her grateful “clients”.
The late Frank Cluskey, probably the finest leader the Labour Party ever had, denounced clientism in Irish politics, arguing that it requires a permanent disadvantaged, dependent class who call on their TD to supply things they are entitled to – or, perhaps, are not entitled to – and that even if our national wealth is distributed more equitably, poverty will not be eliminated so long as “clientism” exists. So, if the proposal to reform the Dáil includes one to reform its members, and to eradicate clientism, it will deserve support, whatever party it may come from.
It is not by chance that of the three organs of government – the legislative, the executive and the judicial – the executive, the government, may attract the most hostility; however, the legislative is unquestionably the one least respected. Its role has been eroded in different ways by each of the other two, and it has made no serious effort to reclaim it. But of the three, it is the only one that is truly representative of the Irish People. If it is to recover its position as holder of “the sole and exclusive power of making laws for the State”, it cannot start too soon to reform itself to become fit to do so. If reform is to be worthwhile, it must address the quality of TDs as well as their working conditions. How to reform them is another question, but it is one where we can fairly expect politicians to contribute their expertise. In a democratic country, people who have no intention of doing their job as legislators cannot be banned from being candidates, but it is certainly not impossible to deprive them of the plausible but spurious attractiveness some of them present.
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