Stephen Collins: It is far too early to judge the 32nd Dáil

Cynics were quick to say that 'new politics’ had already proved to be a worthless experiment

As the Dáil adjourned for the summer recess this week, there was a predictable chorus from the cynics suggesting the “new politics” had already proved to be a worthless experiment. There are some very obvious shortcomings about the way the 32nd Dáil is operating but, to quote Dr Johnson’s observation about a dog walking on its hind legs: “It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”

Having got over the initial shock of the utterly inconclusive verdict delivered by the electorate on February 26th, the Irish political class deserves some credit for eventually finding a way through the stalemate with the election of a government on May 6th. Compare that to Spain where the politicians failed to find a way of putting a government together after their inconclusive election of December 2015 and are still finding a compromise solution impossible after a second election a month ago.

The choice facing the Irish political parties and Independent TDs was to facilitate the formation of a government or hold another election that would probably have produced an identical result. In the end they managed to find a way through the maze with the formation of the Fine Gael-led minority Government dependent for its survival on the involvement of a number of Independent TDs and the goodwill of Fianna Fáil.

Housing plan

There has been a considerable amount of criticism that only five pieces of legislation have been passed by the Dáil in a little over two months since the Government was formed and only one of those bits of legislation was actually new. However, the publication early this week of the comprehensive housing package, piloted through by


Simon Coveney

, was a sign that big decisions affecting the lives of ordinary people can be made by the Government in spite of its precarious Dáil position.

While there is no doubt that getting legislation passed is going to be far more difficult and time-consuming than ever before, that is not necessarily a bad thing. The point about the “new politics” is the Government can no longer act as all its predecessors have done by ramming legislation through the Dáil with little or no input from the Opposition or Government backbenchers. Already there is evidence that the “new politics” is giving TDs greater opportunities to influence legislation.

Sinn Féin finance spokesman Pearse Doherty remarked on Seán O'Rourke's radio programme during the week how Minister for Finance Michael Noonan had accepted two amendments from him to an important Bill. It is something that would not have happened in the last Dáil. Fine Gael backbencher Jim Daly had a similar experience with regard to a piece of legislation to establish an ombudsman for education to investigate grievances against schools. It is an issue the former school principal raised repeatedly in the last Dáil but got nowhere. Now his Education (Amendment) Bill, which was selected for debate through the lottery for Private Members' Bills, has been accepted by the Cabinet and should eventually become law although it may be amended in the process.

In any case politics is about far more than the passage of legislation. We already have a raft of legislation on the statute book that is not being implemented. How often have we heard in recent years of important legislative provisions which have not been activated with commencement orders for one reason or another.

Change of mindset

The process of developing a consensus to get legislation through the Dáil is something entirely new to the Irish political system and it will demand a radical change in mindset from a majority of TDs. In the past, while Opposition TDs suffered the frustration of not being able to influence decision-making, they had the luxury of taking a populist line on every issue.

Now those who are serious about their jobs will have to think long and hard about each issue as it arises. They should be helped by institutional changes that will give TDs access to advice independent of Government across a range of issues from the budget to legal advice on the constitutionality of legislation.

The big doubt is whether a majority of TDs will be able to stick with the hard decisions required by the kind of budget discipline and legal constraints that will inevitably be required if the Dáil survives for three or four years.

For the moment, most of the parties are having it both ways.

Thanks to Enda Kenny’s political skills, Fine Gael has managed the incredible feat of remaining in government with more ministerial posts than it had in the last Dáil despite the fact that it is 30 seats short of a majority.

Fianna Fáil has pulled off the equally remarkable feat of keeping the Government in office while remaining the leading party of the Opposition. If the polls are any guide, the public is responding warmly to the manoeuvre.

Constructive approach



Party has taken the opposite tack, going into full-blooded opposition, when, in fact, many of the decisions being announced by the Government are simply a continuation of the policies the party stood over for five years.

Sinn Féin has the traditional opposition advantage of being able to criticise at will but there are signs in Dáil debates and committee discussions that the party is shifting to a more constructive approach as it readies itself to make a big push for government at the next election.

Ultimately, the success or failure of the 32nd Dáil will depend on how seriously a majority of TDs take their responsibilities. It is far too early to make a judgment on how it will work, but there are grounds for cautious optimism.