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Ireland's new Parliament: Political and physical change coincide amid Covid-19 crisis

9 Jul 2020
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First sitting of the Seanad Éireann, Oireachtas, 29 June 2020. (©Houses of the Oireachtas / CC BY 2.0)

In Ireland, the Covid-19 crisis collided with a ‘change election’, the formation of a historic coalition government and the 'end of Civil War politics'. But the pandemic sucked much of the oxygen out of a heightened political atmosphere, and also occasioned the physical relocation of Parliament, challenging the institution’s operation and culture.

Dr Mary C. Murphy, Senior Lecturer in Politics and holder of a Jean Monnet Chair in European Integration, University College Cork
Dr Mary C. Murphy,
Senior Lecturer in Politics and holder of a Jean Monnet Chair in European Integration, University College Cork

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Following the general election on 8 February 2020, Ireland’s two traditionally-largest parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, ruled out sharing power with Sinn Féin. However, electoral arithmetic determined that neither could govern without the other. This new political reality forced the parties to contemplate a previously unthinkable coalition arrangement between these two bitterly opposed and rival political parties.

Following long months of difficult negotiations, a Programme for Government was agreed, and on Saturday 27 June 2020 Dáil Éireann (the lower House) met and elected Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin as Taoiseach (Prime Minister).

The new government comprises three parties: Fianna Fáil (the largest party), Fine Gael (the previous party of government) and the smaller Green Party. Collectively, the coalition partners won 51% of the popular vote and have 85 of the Dáil’s 160 seats.

In an unusual move, the office of Taoiseach will rotate between the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael leaders. Micheál Martin will hold the office until 15 December 2022. On that date he will offer his resignation to the President, and all parties and Members of the Dáil (TDs) supporting the government will back the nomination of the Fine Gael leader as Taoiseach.

On the occasion of Micheál Martin’s election as Taoiseach, Dáil Éireann did not meet in Leinster House, the traditional seat of the Irish Parliament. Instead, owing to Covid-19 restrictions, the Dáil convened in the Dublin Convention Centre, and what was a seismically historic political moment lost some of its force and cachet in the cavernous surroundings of the 2,000-seat auditorium.

Following the Covid-19 outbreak, the Oireachtas (Parliament) opted to partially relocate rather than conduct proceedings online. Article 15(3) of the Irish Constitution states:

“The Houses of the Oireachtas shall sit in or near the City of Dublin or in such other place as they may from time to time determine.”

This is supplemented by three other Articles which also allude to the provisions governing sittings of the House.

Legal advice to the Clerk of Dáil Éireann advised that these constitutional provisions disallowed virtual meetings of the Oireachtas, because the online format would not meet the constitutional definition of a parliamentary sitting as set out in Article 15. This relates specifically to the fact that for a virtual meeting Members do not sit publicly in the same place, and they are not within the precincts of either House, a provision which allows Members to benefit from parliamentary privileges and immunities (although not all legal analysts agree with this interpretation).

The choosing of an alternative parliamentary venue involved consideration of 13 possible sites. The Dublin Convention Centre was deemed the most appropriate in terms of cost, availability and size. The Centre is sufficiently large to accommodate all 160 TDs while they observe two-metre social distancing measures.

On days when a vote is required, the Oireachtas now convenes in the Convention Centre and considers all items on the Order Paper. On days when no vote is required, other aspects of parliamentary business – including Leaders’ Questions (when party leaders are allowed to put questions to the Taoiseach), debates and motions – take place in Leinster House. Committee meetings also continue to be conducted in Leinster House.

All such sittings in Leinster House are limited to no more than 50 TDs, to allow social distancing measures to be respected.

The Dáil’s Business Committee did consider using the Leinster House Dáil chamber for votes, but judged that it would be too time-consuming and onerous because voting would have to take place on a staggered basis in order to allow social distancing.

It is too early to determine the precise impact of the Dáil’s new surroundings on its functioning. Nevertheless, it is clear that the new parliamentary venue challenges some of the institution’s operational and cultural features, in much the same way that virtual sittings elsewhere are judged to have fundamentally changed parliamentary practices.

Complying with social distancing requires the full use of the Convention Centre hall. The tiered auditorium encompasses the top three levels of the building, and the Dáil’s 160 Members are distributed throughout the entire space. This larger and more spaced-out physical setting removes the spontaneity and impulsiveness typically associated with Leaders’ Questions and parliamentary debate. One journalist has noted that "the biggest drama in this theatre is the sheer lack of it".

The election of the Taoiseach, for example, is normally an occasion for spirited exchanges, but this time, during the first Dáil meeting in the Convention Centre, it was a rather muted affair. Social distancing prevented the kind of interaction, engagement and exchange which is typically a feature of such occasions.

The Dáil's election of the Taoiseach in the Convention Centre gave the impression of a dismembered institution and a disconnected membership engaged in disjointed parliamentary theatre.

Even more strangely and surprisingly, the cavernous surroundings of the makeshift chamber eclipsed and obscured the historic significance of the vote. The "end of Civil War politics in Ireland’s Parliament" proved to be an unexpectedly subdued affair.

Restraint, however, is not a virtue in the parliamentary setting.

The scrutiny of government necessarily requires comprehensive oversight and robust engagement.

Parliamentary committees are an important means of fulfilling this scrutiny function. However, the Oireachtas will not be setting up its full complement of around 20 committees until at least October 2020, because the timetable for convening new committees has been disrupted by Covid-19 restrictions.

The formation of committees will this time happen according to a three-phased approach, with a small number of committees – including the powerful Public Accounts Committee and the Budgetary Oversight Committee – being established before the summer recess and others convening in the autumn.

Of the very few committees which are already established, the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response is responsible for "consider[ing] and tak[ing] evidence on the State’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic". This exceptionally busy all-party Committee has provided a focal point for scrutinising Ireland’s approach to the pandemic.

Committee members meet in the Dáil chamber and communicate with witnesses (who are situated in other parts of the Leinster House complex) via video-link. The format somewhat curbs the intensity of the dialogue and the vigour of the political sparring, but it does not sharply distract from the serious business of scrutiny and oversight.

It is anticipated that Covid-19 restrictions will mean future committees are similarly structured and configured.

Adapting to an altered parliamentary environment in the Dublin Convention Centre has been challenging and frustrating for many of Ireland’s TDs. The venue is unlike Leinster House, a building which is tailored to the role of Parliament, to the needs of TDs and staff, and to the requirements of the political and legislative process.

The Convention Centre is just under two miles away from the Leinster House complex; it caters to a very different purpose and audience; and it does not offer the same level of access to offices, staff and services. This appears to have been a source of some aggravation for new Ministers in particular, who resented having to spend so much time in the Convention Centre waiting for votes when that time might have been spent getting acquainted with new portfolios.

At one Dáil session in the Convention Centre, listed speakers were not present when the Ceann Comhairle (Speaker of the House) called their names. Speaking slots were coming up earlier than scheduled and TDs were unable to make their way from Leinster House to the Convention Centre in time to contribute. This failure to show up and lower rate of attendance saw the session end three hours earlier than anticipated.

Being physically removed from the parliamentary complex limits TDs’ engagement with other aspects of their role outside of voting. The Convention Centre does not accommodate the juggling of this multi-dimensional and diverse workload.

Moreover, the need to maintain social distancing means that opportunities for TDs to mix with each other informally in the Convention Centre are restricted. This is particularly problematic for Ireland’s 48 new TDs, as they try to socialise and acclimatise to the rigours and demands of their new political career.

Hosting the Oireachtas outside of its normal location is also financially costly. An initial outlay of €100,000 (£90,000) was required to equip the Convention Centre for use as a parliamentary chamber. This included the installation of microphones, cameras, recording equipment and other technology. Although the Convention Centre is not charging the state for the use of the building, it is anticipated that it will nevertheless cost €25,000 per day to host a Dáil or Seanad sitting when staffing and broadcasting costs are factored in.

Adjusting to a new coalition arrangement which has decisively broken with political tradition brings its own challenges for Ireland’s parliamentary system. The Covid-19 pandemic adds additional layers of upheaval and complexity to the operation of the institution.

The result has been the emergence of a hybrid form of parliamentary adjustment combining elements of both the physical and virtual parliament. The approach seeks to maintain the fundamentals of Irish parliamentary practice. However, the arrangements are financially costly, and they only partially replicate the formal and informal features of the institution. It is also still too early to determine if this way of conducting parliamentary business is effective and efficient.

The hybrid nature of the current Oireachtas, however, requires that if the institution is to remain politically relevant and democratically valuable, it must adjust its practices, modify its embedded culture, and creatively engage with new technologies. This will better allow Parliament to both support and scrutinise government as it navigates the fallout from this period of crisis. Paradoxically, the Covid-19 pandemic may offer both incentive and roadmap for the emergence of a modernised, energised and effective Irish parliamentary system.

Murphy, M. (2020) Ireland's new Parliament: Political and physical change coincide amid Covid-19 crisis (Hansard Society: London)