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Dáil reform: We can learn from Europe how to fix our broken political system

Article by Brian Hayes MEP, published in the Irish Indpendent on Tuesday 15th March 2016

It is clear from the general election result that the issue of Dáil reform is now back firmly on the political agenda. While the previous government made some differences in trying to modernise parliament, it certainly wasn’t a political revolution.

So will the new Dáil take up the challenge? I certainly hope so. Speak to TDs from all sides and they will express their frustration at simply being there as voting fodder.

But there are two prerequisites.

First, we need more TDs who actually take an interest in doing the hard work of policy formation. Too often it is the minister and front bench spokespersons on the other side of the house who do the majority of the work. Except for the PAC or select committees set up to investigate specific matters of public concern, Dáil Committees are not central in our system.

The second condition for reform is that the media must start to take the Dáil much more seriously. The most depressing thing of all is the over-egged performances played out every day in the Dáil. It is utterly depressing to watch the daily Punch and Judy offering where fake indignation is the order of the day. Those performances are designed to get attention in the media. But there is frequently very little substance in them. The media have a key role to play in this brave new era of Dáil reform.

When Ireland achieved its independence, it followed very closely – even slavishly – the British model of parliament. We copied their standing orders. We copied their whip system. It’s time we started to adapt.

Despite more than 40 years’ membership of the EU, there has been very little willingness in Ireland to learn from or incorporate new ways of doing business. The EU parliament is a good starting point.

Two things struck me on being elected to the European Parliament. One was the need to maximise support for a proposal across the political divide. Trying to get on board the biggest majority possible, not just a simple majority, was a new concept for me coming from Leinster House.

Secondly, making sure that a significant minority, which opposes something, simply cannot be cast aside or ignored. That you have to take account of the views of significant minorities. That was a million miles away from the ‘winner-takes-all’ system that I learnt from Irish politics.

The European Parliament has much to teach us in how political reform might happen. Since the passing of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009, the European Parliament has become a significant player in co-decision making in Europe.

The parliament now gets to sit down with the European Council and negotiate a final outcome on a piece of legislation; only when both sides come to an agreement can the legislation go through. This is not simply a rubber-stamping exercise.

For parliament to effectively negotiate with the council, it needs to build cross-party consensus at committee stage. This cross-party consensus has to be achieved in committee before negotiations with the council. It can often be difficult and messy. And it takes a lot of time. But MEPs have an ownership of the legislation, in a way that has never happened in the Dáil.

For the past year I have been acting as lead negotiator for parliament on an EU pensions directive. For this file, we managed to secure cross-party consensus between five political groups. Having a consensus between these five groups gives parliament a strong bargaining position with the council. It is by no means perfect, but the important thing is that MEPs have a direct role in deciding legislation. If you take it seriously, you can make a difference.

I believe there are five areas where the Dáil could learn from the European Parliament.

1) In the EU Parliament, a lead negotiator or ‘rapporteur’ is appointed for every piece of legislation that comes on its agenda. This allows one member to act on a committee’s behalf and take ownership of a file.

2) Committees in the EU Parliament are very well resourced. When a rapporteur is appointed to a file, usually one or two expert staff are assigned to assist that member. In our system, the experts exist primarily in the government departments.

3) The EU Parliament has a strong negotiating mandate and is on an equal footing with council in deciding most EU legislation. Parliament and council have structured meetings where they can hammer out a final agreement on legislation.

4) Parliament has introduced its own Impact Assessment Unit which is a resource constantly available to all committees. Any committee can request an independent impact assessment. This allows for proper stress testing of all proposals.

5) In EU law-making, all delegated or secondary legislation needs approval from the European Parliament. This is important because any delegated act can mean significant changes to legislation. It is also important from a scrutiny and oversight perspective. This does not happen in our system in any meaningful way.

No parliamentary system is perfect. But we can modernise by learning from what we see. In nearly two years working in the EU Parliament, I have had found that as an ordinary MEP you can make a difference on big areas of policy, and that your views are taken seriously. Giving more power to the Dáil to counter the excessive power of the executive must happen. And the sooner the better. Maybe we can learn from Europe?

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