Swapping Sides: Role reversal for parliaments in Dublin and Belfast

Please note that this was originally published on QPol on 27 May 2016, and is available here. It is re-posted here with the permission of the author and editors.

Recent election results either side of the Irish border have resulted in significant structural changes to the parliaments in Dublin and Belfast.

In the Republic of Ireland, following protracted negotiations between the main parties and independent member groupings in the aftermath of the unprecedented (though not entirely unexpected) result of the Irish general election, outgoing Taoiseach Enda Kenny just about managed to hold onto office. In so doing he becomes the first leader in the 83-year history of his Fine Gael party to be in government for successive terms. But it comes at the price of considerably diminished authority and a number of Ministerial seats being granted to independent TDs as part of deal to ensure their support. His party was 30 seats short of a majority after the election, and securing executive office required a) the support of several independent members, and b) the consent of traditional opponent Fianna Fáil, to govern on a ‘confidence and supply’ basis for three years.

In a major departure for Irish parliamentary politics the ‘Programme for a Partnership Government’ sets out a host of changes to how government engages with both Houses of the Oireachtas – essentially allowing for more opposition input and control of the parliamentary agenda. Indeed, in a parliament which traditionally gave the opposition little if any power, a Fianna Fáil-initiated piece of legislation is already moving towards the statute book, notwithstanding the responsible Fine Gael minister’s concerns. As well as allowing the Ceann Comhairle or Speaker of Dáil Éireann to be elected in a secret ballot for the first time, the new changes introduced by the minority administration also envisage greater parliamentary budgetary oversight and implementing long-overdue reforms of Seanad Éireann. A cross-party committee has already produced an important report recommending detailed changes to facilitate the power balance shift, including new offices such as an ‘Independent Parliamentary Budget Office’ and state funding for smaller parties and independent groupings. Oireachtas committee chairs will no longer be appointed at the pleasure of the government, but by the more proportional d’Hondt method, which will see the positions shared amongst all parties. It thus brings the Oireachtas along the road towards being a more ‘consensual’ legislature familiar to many European democracies, in which opposition parties play a more meaningful role in the policy process.

In Belfast, meanwhile, the legislature at Stormont designed under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement to facilitate cross-party consensus appears to be morphing in the opposite direction. With little major change in the Assembly’s party composition arising from the recent Assembly elections, the unionist Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) decided not to take their allocation of seats in the five-party Executive and instead to create a form of parliamentary opposition. In so doing it sets the Assembly on a trajectory towards a classical Westminster ‘winner-takes all’ parliamentary environment, in which the parties in opposition must ideally posit themselves as a ‘government in waiting’. By their actions the UUP and SDLP will seek to gain future electoral ground over their respective opponents in the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin. This recent decision by the UUP and the SDLP also opens up fundamental questions about how a parliamentary opposition might function in a power-sharing system, from deciding who will ‘shadow’ Ministers to deciding what resources , if any, might be available to them,. All this at a time when the Northern Ireland Civil Service has just been restructured and a new reform agenda is expected. The collective uncertainty hanging over the political-administrative environment comes at a time when the newly appointed Executive faces major challenges – not least of all the outcome of the looming ‘Brexit’ referendum.

Interestingly, Fianna Fáil, the UUP and the SDLP have all suggested that their newly adopted positions will lead to enhanced parliamentary performance through greater executive accountability and better deliberation on policy issues. Can they all be right? Political parties traditionally seek parliamentary reforms that help advance their policy agendas and give them greater shares of parliamentary time, whilst limiting those of other parties. In the new Oireachtas, however, it seems that the door is now open to policy coalitions that cross the government-opposition divide and government defeats that do not automatically lead to elections. But in Stormont the two larger parties may now be incentivised to effectively ‘shut out’ the smaller parties who failed to beat them in the polls and who have chosen not to take up executive portfolios. One thing that is not clouded by uncertainty is that the next meeting of the North/South Inter-Parliamentary Association will be interesting to say the least.

muirismaccarthaigh1-375x375Dr Muiris MacCarthaigh is Lecturer in Politics and Public Administration at Queen’s University Belfast. He is author of Accountability in Irish Parliamentary Politics (2005) and co-editor of The Houses of the Oireachtas: Parliament in Ireland (2010).

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