B+ on transparency; D on accountability.
Not quite the democratic revolution we’d been promised.
Political reform was high on the agenda of all political parties in 2011. In the heat of the worst economic crisis in the history of the state it was apparent to all that failings in our political structures were at least partially to blame. In the opening line of its 2011 Programme for Government the new coalition government wrote boldly of a “democratic revolution”. A series of political reforms was promised, particularly in the two most pressing areas: accountability and transparency: accountability in the sense of giving the Dáil in particular more of a hold over future governments; transparency in terms of opening government up to closer scrutiny.
The scorecard on these two streams of reforms is pretty mixed overall. The good news is that many of the objectives (and a few additional ones) were met on the transparency agenda. The three main planks of an ‘open government’ agenda – freedom of information reinstatement; whistleblowers legislation, and a register of lobbyists – were all implemented, and there were more widespread initiatives to spread an open government agenda across government and the public service. Much praise for all of this goes directly to Brendan Howlin who showed, more than any other minister in this government, true reforming zeal. There were also initiatives emanating from the Department of the Environment, most notably those aimed at opening up party finance to closer scrutiny: however, as the annual reports of the Standards in Public Office Commission reveal a lot more work still needs to be done in this quarter. The lack of any serious intent to establish an Electoral Commission was a major implementation failure.
The government’s record on accountability reforms was nothing short of dismal. A series of pretty irrelevant changes was introduced (cutting pay, reducing the number of TDs, Friday sittings, and so on), but reforms that would actually make a difference to the balance of power between the Dáil and the government were few. About the only reform of any significance was the introduction of a pre-legislative stage, giving committees greater potential to introduce amendments to bills. What clearly made the difference in this instance was the lack of a minister whose portfolio included Dáil reform. In 2011 we had the weakest parliament in Europe. Five years later – and despite the government having the largest parliamentary majority in the history of the state and cross-party consensus in favour of true Dáil reform – we are left with what is still the weakest parliament in Europe.
Overall, the record is not good. The perennial Irish problem of prevarication continues apace. Distracted politicians (who all too easily take their eye off the ball of longer term objectives) combined with the dead hand of civil service mandarins (whose life mission is to preserve the status quo) have won the day again. While the government may have scored well (B+) on transparency, it receives a pretty dismal D on accountability, dragging down its average rating on political reform to a C – not quite the democratic revolution we’d been promised.
Report Card – Accountability
PROGRAMME FOR GOVERNMENT COMMITMENT
ACTUAL PERFORMANCE 2011 – 2016
|Referendum to give Oireachtas committees power to carry out investigations||Referendum was held in 2011 but didn’t succeed. In its stead the government passed the Oireachtas (Inquiries, Privileges and Procedures) Act 2013 aimed at giving Oireachtas Committees greater capability in inquiries. However, the limitations of this new legislation were brought into sharp relief during the course of the Banking Inquiry.|
|Referendum to protect rights of citizens to communicate in confidence with TDs||No referendum was held; however, legislative protections were brought in via the Houses of the Oireachtas (Inquiries, Privileged and Procedures) Act 2013|
|Give key committees constitutional standing||Not implemented|
|Better resourcing of committees||Not implemented|
|New role for Ceann Comhairle to decide whether a minister has failed to properly answer a question||Standing orders were changed but little evidence that this new role has been applied|
|A series of changes to Dáil questions and debates including: speed up time for responses to written questions; more time for oral questions; topical issue debates||All of these were implemented.|
|Remove restrictions of extent of evidence that civil servants can give to committees.||Not implemented.|
|Committees to be given power to introduce legislation||Not implemented.|
|Reduce the use of guillotines||Only in the last 12 months has there been any evidence of a serious effort to reduce the number of guillotines, in large part because media coverage forced the government’s hand.|
|Pre-legislative stage for Bills||This was implemented gradually over the course of the Dáil and is now becoming standard practice.|
|Introduce committee weeks||Not implemented|
|Referendum to abolish Seanad; reductions in ministerial pay; smaller Dail; fewer Dail committees; Dail to meet more regularly||A referendum to abolish the Seanad was held in 2013 but didn’t succeed; the other reforms were all introduced with little if any impact on accountability|
Report Card – Transparency
PROGRAMME FOR GOVERNMENT COMMITMENT
ACTUAL PERFORMANCE 2011 – 2016
|Restore Freedom of Information “to what it was before”.||After some prevarication, delay and last minute hitches over the issue of fees, legislation was passed in 2015|
|Legislate on the issue of cabinet confidentiality||Not implemented|
|Introduce whistleblowers legislation||Protected Disclosures Act passed in 2014. But controversies over the treatment of Garda whistleblowers in 2014 shows the ongoing problem of trying to introduce a culture shift in the higher echelons|
|Reduce the limits of political donations and ban corporate donations||New limits were introduced for corporate donations, but – as before – the parties have proved adept at working around them|
|Introduce a statutory register of lobbyists||Regulation of Lobbying Act passed in 2015 and the Register has been up and running since September 2015|
|Establish an Electoral Commission||After considerable delay, the Environment, Culture and Gaeltacht Committee was finally charged with considering this in late 2015. Its report was published on the eve of the election meaning that, in effect, this issue was (yet again) kicked into the next Dáil|
|“We will open up the Budget process to the full glare of public scrutiny”.||Not implemented.|
Extras not in the 2011 Programme for Government
- The Public Sector Standards Bill is at an advanced stage and should be ready for completion in the next Dáil. This introduces a new Public Sector Standards Commission, whose remit is to provide a statutory framework governing disclosure of interests and other ethical obligations for public officials.
- Ireland became a full member in 2014 of the Open Government Partnership, an international initiative designed to promote an open government agenda. Among other measures this has seen the establishment of an Open Data Platform.