Irish Times articles by Dublin faculty member

Champlain Dublin faculty member Dr. Anthony O’Halloran spent part of his summer writing opinion articles for the Irish Times, reprinted below.  Dr. O’Halloran teaches ‘Modern Irish Social History’.

We should never be ashamed that our Dáil is a ‘talking shop’

We have come from civil war to democratic debate and should now know it’s good to talk

A prisoner under escort during the Civil War. At that time of great bitterness it could not have been foreseen that there would be a peaceful transfer of power after an election 10 years later. Photograph: National Library of Ireland

Anthony O’Halloran

Earlier this year my father, Patrick O’Halloran, celebrated his 87th birthday. When he was born, on a Tipperary farm, Ireland had just come out of a vicious civil war in which differences between former comrades were resolved with bombs and bullets.

Nevertheless, by his sixth birthday in 1932, the then Free State could be classified as a consolidated parliamentary democracy, having successfully passed a critical test, namely the peaceful transfer of executive power after an election.

It is worth recalling that at the time of my father’s birth most of the world was governed undemocratically. His parents’ generation were the first beneficiaries of universal adult suffrage. It is easy to forget that liberal democracy, an early 20th century marriage of democratically-elected representative institutions and constitutionally-protected civil rights, is at most 10 years older than my father.

Even in the early years of the 21st century, liberal democracies are still a minority in the global order. According to the Freedom House organisation, for example, Ireland is one of 90 out of 195 countries (46 per cent) in 2012 that are categorised as free, in the sense of possessing and upholding civil and political rights.

And the Economists Intelligence Unit’s democracy index for 2012 ranks Ireland 13th out of 167 countries surveyed. Norway, Sweden and Iceland are ranked first, second and third respectively. Furthermore, Ireland is one of just seven countries in the entire survey awarded the maximum score of 10 in the sphere of civil rights. In what should be a salutary reminder to all democrats, 51 countries are classified as authoritarian.

Yet in this period of deep economic crisis and its attendant social devastation, it is easy and understandable to dismiss Ireland as some kind of banana republic or basket case democracy. However, even in times of deep economic crisis, when most of us veer between disillusionment and utter frustration, it is important not to throw out the baby with the bath water.

While Ireland’s political system clearly has many flaws, it also has significant strengths, including a long parliamentary tradition and a legally and culturally-embedded constitutional framework. These are strengths not to be scoffed at.

Two interrelated aspects of our politics regularly invite strong criticism. First, the Dáil is categorised as an irrelevant chamber dominated, as indeed it is, by an all-powerful executive. Secondly, it is dismissed as a talking shop.

That the executive can control much of Dáil business is beyond dispute: a tightly whipped party system and the capacity to use guillotine motions are perhaps the most obvious manifestation of this.

But commentators should avoid suggestions that we live in a system where the executive enjoys total dominance.

Remember that in the early 21st century the greatest check on the executive is public scrutiny facilitated by the electronic communications revolution and a vigilant media. In this regard, Dáil proceedings are televised. Citizens and commentators can and do make their own judgments on how well or otherwise the Taoiseach and his Ministers are performing.

Thus article 15.8.1 of the 1937 Constitution ,which stipulates “that sittings of each House of the Oireachtas shall be public”, acquires special significance in the modern communications age.

The Dáil, like all parliaments, is indeed a talking shop. But this description should be a badge of honour, not a matter for derision.

A core feature of parliamentary democracy is that differences and conflicts in a pluralist society are resolved through talk in parliament and the wider public sphere against the essential constitutional backdrop of civil and political rights.

Parliaments do a lot of talking and parliaments should do a lot of talking. Of course, on many occasions they need to make binding decisions. But decisions need to be preceded by talk. And when talk is curtailed through the excessive employment of guillotine motions, democrats rightly holler.

On other occasions talk may have intrinsic value, reflecting the mood of the nation. The current Taoiseach’s Dáil apology to the victims of the Magdalene laundries and his speech in the aftermath of the publication of the Cloyne report are cases in point.

Of course, in the cut and thrust of day-to-day partisan parliamentary politics it is easy to lose sight of the larger historical picture, namely that as a people we are well aware of what happens when bombs and bullets replace political talk.

In this regard, as we approach a multitude of national centenaries, I sincerely hope that will be treated as more than a mere historical footnote to the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence.

Dr Anthony O’Halloran is author of The Dáil in the 21st Century, published by Mercier Press.

Dáil deputies are well employed listening to the concerns of their constituents

Opinion: genuine representation of the interests of voters should not be written off as parish pump politics

Our TDs are often written off as mere ‘messenger boys’, but is their behaviour much different from that of parliamentary representatives in other countries?

Anthony O’Halloran

The following quote appears in the autobiography of a former Irish cabinet minister: “Foreign colleagues were amazed in an interval of some international conference to watch me signing replies to individual constituents on their personal problems, and to learn that I had earlier dictated these replies myself.”

Addressing a group of my students two years ago, a former south Tipperary TD shared a letter he received from constituents on the occasion of his retirement from Dáil Éireann: “Just to say thank you for all your good work . . . You helped my mother recently with a problem with trees. When I left your area to get married you even sent a good luck letter, which I have got framed. Good luck in the future.”

Let me say straight away that in the interest of making a point I have been misleading you: the Irish cabinet minister and the south Tipperary TD are fictions. The minister in question is, in fact, Tory grandee and former British foreign secretary Douglas Hurd, while the TD is Old Labourite and former speaker of the British House of Commons Betty Boothroyd. The quotes are taken from Hurd’s and Boothroyd’s memoirs.

Just imagine if two retired Irish politicians uttered these words at one of the myriad of summer schools taking place. They would be subjected to immediate derision from the assembled political commentators. Only in Ireland’s dysfunctional political system, we would be told, could a cabinet minister be devoting himself to constituency affairs at an international conference.

On talk shows the retired politicians would invariably be labelled as parish pump representatives who are more interested in attending funerals and getting potholes filled. From rural villages to international conferences, it would be opined that Irish politicians are simply incapable of moving beyond their parochial mentality. Hopes for political reform will always be dashed, it would be concluded, for as long as Irish politicians remain stuck in what is essentially a pre -modern mindset.

Constituency roles
Yet, two former British MPs from different political backgrounds – both of whom enjoyed distinguished national careers – obviously attached considerable importance to their constituency roles.

I would like to make three observations about contemporary commentary on TDs and their constituency role. First, it is erroneously assumed that the practice of national representatives discharging constituency obligations is a peculiarly Irish phenomenon. The reality is very different. MPs in most liberal democracies devote a significant amount of time and resources to constituency work.

In Germany’s rural districts an MP’s weekend schedule would replicate that of his Kerry or Waterford counterpart. Function after function is attended in the hope of meeting as many constituents as possible, not to mention gaining media coverage. Perhaps some German MPs even attend funerals!

Members of the French National Assembly behave primarily as constituency servants rather than national legislators. Like Ireland, members tend to be very much rooted in their localities.

The United States Congress is typically classified as a system that exercises real law-making power. Nevertheless, members of the House of Representatives, in particular, devote significant time and resources to nursing their constituencies.

Even in recently created regional assemblies such as Wales and Scotland, members have not proved themselves to be immune from constituency work. This applies to members elected from regional lists and local constituencies.

Second, there is a tendency to treat constituency work as undifferentiated. Typically, constituency work in all its guises is lumped under the category of clientelism. The commentary fails to distinguish, for example, between addressing individual grievances and representing the interests of the constituency as a whole.

Ideally, TDs should not be dealing with so many individual grievances. However, what is termed constituency case work in other countries features prominently in the workload of MPs in countries as varied as Malta, New Zealand and Canada.

Third, constituency work is perceived to be an intrinsically “bad thing”. The ultimate opprobrium is to describe a TD as a parish pump politician or messenger boy or girl.

However, I often wonder whether commentators ever consider that TDs might actually have some very important messages to deliver to ministers and civil servants. It is worth bearing in mind that the potential closure of a hospital or Garda station is no trivial matter for those who might be affected by the decision.

Clearly, in most liberal democracies MPs have national and constituency obligations. Both roles can overlap and there can obviously be a tension between the two.  Essentially, though, in any liberal democracy including Ireland it is about attempting to get the balance right.

As discussions on reforming Ireland’s political system continue unabated, it is time that the commentary on TDs and their constituency role moved beyond the jaded language of parish pump and potholes.

Shift power
A more informed public discussion is required. And any discussion should cease casting Ireland in such an atypical guise.

Even in a reformed system which would shift power towards the legislature, representing the constituency should remain an important democratic obligation for TDs. After all, it is this aspect of Irish politics that has provided a crucial link between governors and governed.

Dr Anthony O’ Halloran is author of The Dáil in the 21st Century, published by Mercier Press.

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