We are now just over half-way through the 32nd Dáil’s first year. It sat for the first time on 10 March 2016. Critics of the minority set-up were dubious as to whether the new “Partnership Government” could or would last, and how quickly legislation could pass through a house with the numbers as they were.
It is, of course, not Ireland’s first minority government. In fact, they have been relatively common since the establishment of the Republic. However, we have just emerged from the longest period of full majority governments in our history – almost 30 years. At the six-month mark, in the lead-up to the Budget 2017 announcement, it is a good time to take a step back and examine just how the “new politics” of the 32nd Dáil has fared thus far.
Minority Governments have accounted for 44% of all Dáil compositions since its inception. The politics of “new politics”, then, is not wholly new. Ireland’s last minority Government was appointed following the 1987 general election. In early 1987, the Labour Party withdrew their support from the Fine Gael coalition Government and the Dáil was dissolved.
Fianna Fáíl, with the support of Fine Gael, established the 25th Dáil, with Charles Haughey at its helm. The Government, which lasted for just over two years, were dealing with huge national debt, and made cuts across the public sector. However, the period did see the reasonably successful introduction and signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, easing tensions slightly in Northern Ireland. The tenth constitutional amendment was also introduced, ratifying the Single European Act. In total during this Government’s tenure, 96 Acts passed successfully through the Oireachtas. With an average of 35 for each year in office, it would seem that this minority government fared quite well, despite the uneasy alliance between Ireland’s two largest – and generally opposing – parties.
So then, the “new politics” of the 32nd Dáil does not solely mean the presence of a minority government, or a government where opposing parties cooperate. The novelty lies in the party (or lack thereof) with which Fine Gael has formed the partnerships in order to establish a Government.
Where we stand
Even when compared with the 1987 Dáil, the 32nd Dáil has been slow to pass legislation. In the first two months in office, only five pieces of legislation were passed. At the six-month mark, that figure was 11. In speaking to Scope magazine this month, public affairs consultant Garrett Fennell commented of the Government:
“The particular arithmetic and dynamics within government haven’t shown themselves to be robust and opposition parties aren’t in politics to remain in opposition. They are there to get into power.”
So, then, Fianna Fáil’s opposition could be assumed to be the reason for the slow-down in the progression of legislation. However, if the reports of those within the Dáil are taken into account, a picture of a much more democratic and collaborative process develops. Accounts from inside the Oireachtas report that those Government are open to suggestions and amendments from those whose voice would not always have been heard prior to now. Finance Spokesperson for Sinn Féin, Pearse Doherty TD, noted that the Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan TD, had accepted two of his amendments to a Bill currently under discussion. In this vein, a backbench TD for Fianna Fáil also saw his recommendations taken into account in legislation.
The 32nd Dail may be slower than previous compositions, even previous Irish minority governments, but that may not necessarily mean that they are subject to stronger push-back by their opposition. It could mean that the legislation that is passed will tend to be more democratically debated, more evenly weighed, and taking into account varied perspectives.
This Friday, 30 September, PAI will host a conference on the challenges of progressing legislation through a House led by a minority. This half-day conference will bring together leading voices in public policy to discuss topics such as the pre-legislative process, how other countries deal with similar situations and the role of lobbyists in the movement of legislation.
Speakers on the day will include Government Chief Whip, Regina Doherty TD and Dr James Johnston of the Scottish Parliament.
The conference will be held in PAI’s Head Office in Mountjoy Square, Dublin 1. For more information, see here.