A recurrent proposal in the ongoing debate about institutional reform in Ireland is that the number of members of Dáil Éireann be reduced from the current level of 166. Perhaps this particular proposal receives prominence because it’s relatively easily understood, and is seen by some as a satisfyingly visible response to widespread alienation from politicians and politics as practised in Ireland. It receives additional and weighty support from the most recent (and much more wide-ranging) article in the Irish Times series on political and economic renewal, by UCD Professor David Farrell which you can read here.
While appreciating that it’s perhaps unfair to evaluate any one such proposal in isolation from the broader set of ideas with which it’s typically linked, I’m genuinely puzzled as to why it seems to have such immediate resonance and support, beyond the generalised antipathy towards elected politicians, an antipathy which some of them seem willing to enable, by competing to support a culling of their present –and future–numbers.
Let me explain why I think the reasoning behind this sort of proposal is problematic, with a nod towards a little naive economics argument towards the end.
I’m puzzled (a semi-permanent state, admittedly) in trying to discern empirical and conceptual bases for the proposal to reduce the size of Dáil Éireann. Part of the empirical basis seems to be, as Prof Farrell says, that “Ireland has one of the largest parliaments proportionate to population size: officially we have the 26th highest ratio of MPs per vote”. It seems to me that this empirical statement alone, while interesting, establishes more or less nothing normatively. Is the implicit standard of comparison an average of this international sample? Or the minimum ratio? How do we know the happenstance average (or minimum) is optimal? Would the optimal size of the Dáil necessarily change if other countries scaled up (or down) their parliaments? It would be interesting to have this element of the argument at least teased out in a way which (to be fair to Prof Farrell) the word-length constraints of the newspaper op-ed typically don’t allow, and I’m sure is reflected in a political science literature with which others are familiar.
Presumably the argument ultimately rests on some concept of the relationship between the size of a parliament and the functions it is expected to perform. Some of the key formal functions of Dáil Éireann, as I understand it, are:
- the election of a Taoiseach, as leader of the government,
- the provision of personnel to form that government,
- the enactment of legislation, including that related to constitutional amendments, and
- the holding of the government to account in respect of its responsibilities.
I’m sure many more expert than I could supplement these formal functions with others, and with certain implicit expectations of a polity for its parliament; for example, that it be representative of public opinion, or of the population in some key dimensions, that it be the key forum for debating issues of national importance, other aspects of ‘legitimacy’, and the like. But the formal functions set out above are good to go with initially.
As to point 1 above, given a parliamentary system for choosing a Taoiseach, I can’t imagine that the range of sizes of Dáileanna in the various parallel universes envisaged matters very much to the mechanics of that process by itself.
But when considering the membership of the government, surely there are problems consequent on the reduction in size, from 166 to say, 120? I doubt any government would wish to have less than the constitutional maximum of 15 (full) ministers, so at best, we might regularly have a pool of only 60 or so from which a Taoiseach could choose to fill that number, while meeting the usual constraints of rewarding loyalty, the just chastisement of recalcitrants and apostates, respecting geographic considerations, a nod towards gender, and occasionally allocating office on merit (if only by accident). A natural response is to side-step that argument by wishing to constitutionally separate membership of government from that of the legislature, as has indeed been sometimes proposed. But if so, let’s concede that reducing the size of the legislature has one consequence or the other, unintended or not.
It’s then perhaps even more problematic to consider the effectiveness of a smaller Dáil in fulfilling other roles in respect of legislation and the accountability of the executive. Given that it’s unlikely, to put it mildly, that there will any effective change in the basic scale of the state’s role in society, we need to think carefully about further limiting the number of elected citizens who are charged with directing and overseeing Leviathan, whether in government or opposition. I can’t quite square the ubiquity of the diagnosis of government failure over the last number years with calls to reduce the number of elected citizens who might in principle have constitutional authority to influence and check that element of our polity.
Which government would tremble at parliamentary oversight when perhaps less than 60 TDs in opposition were matched to the full panoply of established departments, agencies and semi-state companies? Are we really to mark government bodies with thousands of employees and billions in budgets with a lonesome opposition tribune of the people (or two)? Do Twitter and Liveline truly fill in the accountability gap? This is no argument for the status quo: but more of that anon.
Some might imagine that a smaller Dáil would necessarily be better resourced per capita, e.g., in terms of facilities for research and policy development for individual members, the better to hold the executive to account. But if reformers concede—indeed argue—that in effect, less is more as far as parliamentary representation is concerned, would there ever be any political space for an argument to seriously increase resources to enable members to carry out their duties more effectively?
Prof Farrell goes on to consider the impact of a reduction in size of the legislature along with a move to larger constituencies, with the aim of increasing the proportionality of the system i.e., as I understand it, ensuring a closer match between party shares of votes and party shares of seats, saying “Fewer TDs covering larger areas would be forced to cut back on the degree of constituency service they provide.” I would imagine that the contrary is equally likely to be case, absent an exogenous change in political culture on the part of the electorate, the likelihood of which perhaps our friends in political science might have a view.
Stranger things have happened—but so have less strange things, like the basic incentive for politicians to devote themselves to constituency work being intensified in the face of more competition over a more difficult-to-manage large geographical area.
It would be interesting to know what the conceptual terms of this debate within political science are, not least because another strand of proposals ‘out there’ seems to suggest that moving towards smaller (even single-seat) constituencies is the way to go. The argument seems to be that entrenching incumbents somehow would equally motivate them to turn their Burkean (or Ciceronian?) visages towards the sunlit uplands of ‘the national interest’, having been relieved of the trauma of dealing with the quotidian concerns of those who merely elect them.
Taking a very naive “electoral politics as a market” point of view, I would have thought that a diagnosis of institutional failure arising from the dominance of entrenched dynastic, clientetlist, and pre-modern elites would have drawn people towards measures which might, all things being equal, increase the chances of entry into representative politics of groups and individuals currently under-represented. In short, and all others things being equal, should the reformistas not be arguing for an increase in the size of Dáil Éireann? Perhaps we need the Competition Authority in on this one.
In any event, this is admittedly not the most pressing matter affecting most peoples’ lives and some would argue, as the Taoiseach seems to, that institutional reforms (or re-organisations) distract unduly from the substantive work of policy. But if we to have this debate, perhaps some of the underlying reasoning can be fleshed out and tested.
I imagine a lot of that will happen at the timely conference being held this Friday 26th March at UCC on political reform in Ireland. Details of the conference and many interesting posts, at the Political Reform website.
42 replies on “Political reform: the puzzling argument for reducing the size of Dáil Éireann”
I’m puzzled as to why this issue deserves a post. Afaik FG’s New Politics document does not contain a proposal to reduce the size of the Dail. I understand that the FG leader made the case for reducing the size of the Dail and for electing some TDs on a list system – which is a separate issue, but the parliamentary party rejected this.
In the absence of any enormous popular groundswell in favour of such a proposal – which I don’t detect – the only way such a proposal would demand consideration and require the consent of the people is for it to be advanced by a party in government or by a party with a reasonable expectation of being in government at the next time of asking. Since that does not appear to be the case I think we are into academic parlour game territory.
The shade of Nero endures..
I would rather increase the Dail to 200 seats, most of which would go to underrepresented urban constituencies, and abolish the Senate with its bizarre makeup and lack of achievement.
The accountability issue is a different argument, since the Dail Committees are hobbled by the Courts irrespective of their numbers.
pray tell me how the urban areas are under represented?
The shade of Nero endures..
i think more the problem is that we have very large clones of incitatus…
How about a comment on what you think of the three options outlined by Anglo_Irish CEO today? Do they stand up?
@ David O’Donnell,
Separate thread surely.
The arguments are by the way flawed.
Petty we will never see the advice given. Which of course we paid for.
“The argument seems to be that entrenching incumbents somehow would equally motivate them to turn their Burkean (or Ciceronian?) visages towards the sunlit uplands of ‘the national interest’, having been relieved of the trauma of dealing with the quotidian concerns of those who merely elect them.”
That can be achieved by making it illegal for a TD to make representations on behalf of individual citizens.
Of course that will never happen. It is by (bureaucratic) rationing that citizens are forced to go to TDs and exchange their franchise for medical cards, council houses and planning permissions.
Only doctors should be allowed have clinics. It is quite disgusting that State revenue is used to provide offices and staff for each of these “feudal intermediaries”.
Either we have rights or we do not. If there is a “right” to a medical card then it is a “right”.
If the bureaucracy fails to deliver on that right there should be an appeal process with the power of the District Court (and beyond).
The problem is that most of the Dail whether in government or opposition are lobby fodder – either to pair off going through the voting lobbies, or to lobby on behalf of some sectional interest with access.
60 tds elected in a single national constituency would at least see them at each other’s throats. We might even get some of those fights you see in emerging nations.
We are constantly being told we are a young nation. If it poppycock. We have one of the oldest surviving uninterrupted systems in the world. Look at Poland or the Baltics, they are young nations. France and Germany are both younger than us. Only those turgid giants of waffle, the US and the UK are older than us.
The 1930s constitution no longer meets the needs of a modern democracy. The president, the senate, the system of constituencies and the embedded clientism are a blight on the concept of democracy.
Evolution has two modes of action small increments and large jumps. It’s time to evolve our system of governance with a large jump.
“Only those turgid giants of waffle, the US and the UK are older than us.”
How to make friends and influence people. 🙂
“Evolution has two modes of action small increments and large jumps.”
Or as is said in another place…
“Sorry, go back to demanding an increase in your budget you worthless examples of reverse evolution.”
@ David O’Donnell,
here is a big question: Why does Alan Dukes want to save Anglo Irish bank? What does prof. Niamh Brennan want to save the Dublin Docklands Development Authority? Or why does BOH want to save Zoe developments? Far more to the point, why do any of these people believe in their heart and soul they even possess the minerals to do so? And why is it important to believe at all, that something, somewhere in these institutions is important to save? That is the really big question. Because you cannot accuse (I am not saying you are) Alan Dukes, Niamh Brennan and BOH of all being bonkers surely? Can anyone explain this compulsion on the part of otherwise rational individuals, to go native?
As KW would say, all answers on an electronically addressed envelope. BOH.
@ Aidan Kane,
I’m puzzled (a semi-permanent state, admittedly) in trying to discern empirical and conceptual bases for the proposal to reduce the size of Dáil Éireann. Part of the empirical basis seems to be, as Prof Farrell says, that “Ireland has one of the largest parliaments proportionate to population size: officially we have the 26th highest ratio of MPs per vote”.
The relevant question I would like to ask, on foot of Boone and Johnson’s recent Baseline Scenario blog entry, Could The US Become Another Ireland? Why does Ireland need a huge, big rotten system of banking institutions which infiltrate the DDDA, wrench the economic infrastructure and pillage from private companies such as Zoe – which is much larger than the needs of the population of this island? ? ? BOH.
Rather than hurling on the ditch, why don’t you announce your intention to run in the next election in a constituency of your choice. I will chip in 50 euros towards your campaign.
@ Brian O’ Hanlon,
I know why Alan Dukes and Niamh Brennan are doing what they are doing.
Of course I won’t write it here. But I’ll give you a hint. Its got to do with politics, money and class.
The political class will always protect their money.
Is that clear enough for you.
So tells us BOH, why do you want to “save” Zoe developments?
No doubt your motivations are pure and principled.
In which case you have nothing to lose by making them public.
@ tull mcadoo
“Rather than hurling on the ditch, why don’t you announce your intention to run in the next election in a constituency of your choice. I will chip in 50 euros towards your campaign.”
Your “chipping in” of €50 Euros is beyond generous.
I don’t know how BL will be able to live with himself in the face of such munificence
Of course it’s not for me to get in the way of your desire for someone else to be your leader. But here’s an idea. Why don’t you keep your 50 Euros and establish a fund so that you as Citizen can put yourself forward in your own constituency.
Look at Poland or the Baltics, they are young nations.
Which existed as political units during the formative 1700s (a period that we mostly missed out on, thanks to those lovely Penal Laws). Our political development came to an halt at the conclusion of the 17th century for about two hundred years.
As long as we have situations like police officers being arrested for allegedly revealing seriously unlawful acivity by senior politicians – which otherwise would never have been investigated – into the public domain, while the politician is not only not arrested but is lauded for resigning an office of state!!!, then we know that the whole culture of our political system is broken. As journalists Geraldine Kennedy and Susan O’Keefe found out whistleblowers in Ireland aren’t hailed – they’re threatened with jail. While as Dr Michael Neary found out those exposed live prosperously and unrepentantly.
@ Oliver Vandt,
The money thing, insolvent banks and Fianna Fail using the Treasury as one big election slush fund pales to the insignificant when one considers the true nature of politics in this corrupted isle.
Is it possible for one to imagine what the heroes of 1916 and the war of independence and the heroes of the civil war would make of this?
Is it possible to imagine what the 40,000 dead anti-heroes of the first world war would make of this.
This “republic” has become nothing more than a cesspool of self interest.
Speaking of cesspools of self-interest the DDDA reports are here:
The DDDA is the symbol of the entire lending/property swindle. We should make it a monument to the victims of the Irish establishment. Keep it undeveloped. Just put a plaque on the entrance with an electronic counter showing the total lost plus accumulating interest. Leave the toxic waste in the ground. Let’s not wait until 2016 – open it tomorrow.
You are selecting a poor demographic on size, as does Professor Farrell – might I humbly suggest a few others that might be empirically more revealing:
 If you are a woman, and your name isn’t Mary – your chances of a Ministership are slim stat sig***
 If you are not a teacher/lecturer, or a member of the legal profession solicitor/barrister – your chances of a Ministership are slim stat sig***
 If you do not possess the patience of Job, and the ability to nod continuously with the Dear Leader – your chances of a Ministership are NIL stat sig ***************
 If you can think for yourself, and the oratorical ability to tell it as it is, and the pragmatism to DO, and little patience – your chances of a Ministership are NIL – insufficient data to test significance – The Lee Particularity only.
Sufficient for the mo. Looking forward to a few refutations. Nite all!
So tells us BOH, why do you want to “save” Zoe developments?
No doubt your motivations are pure and principled.
In which case you have nothing to lose by making them public.
What I witnessed at Zoe developments was roughly 500 employees, besides the owner Liam Caroll, who did something very rare in human society, they tried to cooperate amongst each other to achieve a greater goal. I am not saying they consistently achieved perfection. I am not saying the company was perfect (no more than any companies out there are). But what I liked to see, and what gave me confidence in the human spirit, was people trying and aiming to achieve better all the time, via cooperation. It was sweet. I would simply like to see those same 500 employees given back such as opportunity. I don’t really mind, whether it is shoe box apartments or piazza delivery. As long as people get an opportunity to live in this country and try. BOH.
@ Aidan Kane
“Political reform: the puzzling argument for reducing the size of Dáil Éireann”
Well it’s perfectly obvious dear boy we need to get Holmes onto this right away. The Met simply aren’t up to the job.
“Speed is of vital importance, and when one is in a hurry it is sometimes necessary to take a short cut, which was the case this particular evening.
There are men in London who out of shyness or sourness have no wish for the company of others. (that would be “hedge funds” or as they are also known bankers with a sociopathic view of humanity that consider Governments prey).
Yet they are not averse to comfortable chairs and the latest reading material.
For their convenience a Club was started which forbad any member of taking any notice of each other.
If a member talked it was a black mark against him, and three such marks rendered him liable to expulsion. (remind me again how many of the Club of (the green “Welcome to Jersey”) Ireland are talking about each other now?)
When will this Kleptocracy end?
How much does a Green Jersey cost? http://www.jersey.co.uk/
This is one of the most comprehensive blogs I’ve seen on this site.
I agree with most of it, but I’d add my own observation. FG wants to reduce the Dail by 20 and abolish the Seanad (they haven’t formally declared either, but they’ve expressed the sentiment) – surely this would have the effect of squeezing out minority candidates and would disproportionately benefit FF and FG (in what order, we’re not sure at the moment, but probably FG the most).
Furthermore, Prof. Farrell’s idea of increasing constituency sizes would exacerbate the situation – minority candidates would have even less opportunity when up against a higher proportion of candidates with Dail experience. Maybe it’s the cynic in me, but I can’t help but smell a bit of short-term opportunism on FG’s part – reduce the numbers and concentrate power in our own hands while we can etc.
The voters in their wisdom have consistently returned Mr Lowry, despite or because of his sins?
The voters are part of the problem. They get the politicians they deserve. They get the houses they are will ing to overpay for.
Representative democracy did not cause the present massive debt problem. It failed to stop it. FG and the rest are merely distracting from the causes of the problem. As I have consistently pointed out, there is a more obvious campaign in operation about the USA which was the larger source of the problem.
This is a distraction. A diversion. I have not seen any of the recognized economists agreeing that the cause of the problem was poorly regulated banking. Banking with nil reserves, as proposed in the USA, is virtually identical to banking with reserves: poisonous to consumers. Asking people to consume means that they become stooges who will vote for anyone who promises more. Greed is the issue.
Teaching people that asking for more is democratic and feasible is going out of fashion. There is no need to “do something” !!!! The system is resetting. The Matrix is still run by the same characters. It will produce similar results in the future. Just what is wrong? Oh, the results? But they are inescapable, no matter how many bodies stalk the corridors of power.
Tax evasion is being addressed!!!!!!!
It only seems to matter when the tax take drops. And after they have let all the experienced personnel walk out the door. Very Irish.
@ Pat Donnelly,
Time to take the power of money creation back then.
Money creation is tax.
You’re not far off there.
@ Brian O’ Hanlon,
“What I witnessed at Zoe developments was roughly 500 employees”
Maybe I’m missing something here. You “witnessed”.
“besides the owner Liam Caroll, who did something very rare in human society”
“they tried to cooperate amongst each other to achieve a greater goal”
“It was sweet.”
So your desire to “save” Zoe Developements is some type of religious thing.
So you like to take low blows Greg. That is nice, I get it. It means you are a member of the Fine Gael political party. Thanks for clearing that up for the benefit of all of us. Who is your role model? Leo Varadkar? BOH.
Yes, we could do with some “horse sense” – both here and wider. My view is that the way TDs are elected or how many of them there are is far less important than what they do when they sit in the Dail. We had a very desultory discussion of FG’s proposals on the design and implementation of fiscal and bugetary policy on another thread. I had thought it might have provoked more reaction from the economics fraternity.
On the precise issue of electoral reform, Kenneth Benoit, following on from David Farrell’s advocacy of a citizens’ assembly, has an interesting piece in today’s IT:
They’ll probably sort it all out in UCC today:
Of course, this is all just a distraction from Mr. Cowen’s primary objective to stay in power for as long as possible.
The senate should be abolished or drastically reformed. As it will never be drastically reformed it must therefore be abolished. It will serve as a useful lesson to other failing bodies.
On the Dail we need:
Single seat constituencies plus regional list system to ensure minority parties are represented. Half and half. The half who are elected on the list system can be regional advocates rather than just being exclusively concerned with the welfare of West Clare.
Cut off supply of clientellism by putting ombudsman/citizens advice office in every constituency and expanding staff so they can advocate like TDs do.
Cut off demand for clientellism by passing laws to ensure that representations by TDs are treated no more favourably than by Ombudsman.
Allow ombudsman to publish on weekly basis official replies to queries to replace practice of Dail questions.
Finally, introduce strong regional government and taxation so that the country has a much bigger pool of politicians with real government experience and to foster regional – not local – development, services,
planning and most importantly perspective.
Give power to local representatives.
TDs for say NW Cork (a 3 seat constituency) don’t represent NW Cork. They represent the Northern or Southern half of NW Cork. Local councillors don’t make local decisions. The managers do. Regional thinking is non-existent. Given all this no wonder we’re in a mess.
The size of the Dail is not important. I’d leave it as it is. But a regional list system MIGHT allow people with a broader perspective to enter politics.
A nice piece from the NYT, alongside Krugman lamenting the descent of a once-proud and effective legislature into a polarised parliament:
that seeks to put economists in their place and might help to counterbalance the badly concealed disdain for the practitioners of the political arts.
A federal system similar to the German, Canadian, US models might be an improvement. The population lends itself to division into four provinces/states. The built up area of Dublin being one, the other three would not necessarily be along existing provincial lines. After all the county province model now is only of use to the GAA. The central government would deal with External relations, defence, interprovincial transportation (roads, rail, ships and air). Provinces would deal with education, health care, intra provincial transportation, policing and the municipalities would be creatures of the Province. Taxation, all three levels of government would have taxation power. It is of particular importance that municipalities have taxing power to fulfill their responsibilities. No more cap in hand begging from the central gov’t.. This would not end all corruption but at lest there would be competition between
gov’ts at the same level and between levels of gov’t.. The existing set up is far too incestuous. lets hope the alternative is not too promiscuous.
My invitation to BL to stand as our new champion still stands. Judgingby his reference to Caligula’s horse, he seems to be sceptical of the standards of our current parliamentarians. Therefore, I invite him to improve the standard by standing in any division of his choosing. My offer of 50 euros to fund the campaign still stands. Seeing as you share his apparent scepticism, perhaps you would also seek election.
I will not put my self forward since I seek none of the power and the trappings of high office.
Did I read somewhere that there are currently 3 unfilled TD seats that need by-elections to fill them? Anybody know off the top of their head if a) that’s true and b) which ones?
Are FF dragging their feet in holding the elections?
Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus did not lose office by losing an election.
On 24 January AD 41 Cassius Chaerea, together with two military colleagues fell upon the emperor in a corridor of his palace.
Some of his German personal guards rushed to his aid but came too late. Several praetorians then swept through the palace seeking to kill any surviving relatives.
Caligula’s fourth wife Caesonia was stabbed to death, her baby daughter’s skull smashed against a wall.
The scene was truly a gruesome one, but it freed Rome from the insane rule of a tyrant.
A bit extreme I think.
However I don’t think €50 will go all that far in deposing King Cowen.
@ Joseph ,
Fianna Fail and the Green Party call it Democracy.
@ Brian O’ Hanlon,
Do what you like with Zoe Developments.
Just don’t look to the State to fund it.
A “low blow” is a State rifling the Treasury to bail out the incompetent and the corrupt.
Tuesday, March 30, 2010. The Day the Music Died.
Wednesday, March 31, 2010. Nothing Happens.
Thursday, April 1, 2010. A Nation of Sold Serfs Chained by Bought Fools.
@ David O’Donnell ,
Tuesday, March 30, 2010.
This is the day the Oligarchs sell the State as they had previously agreed to do.
Watch how they use the Preference Shares.
I have pointed it out before ad nauseam.
The Preference shares were designed to fail.
@ Mickey Hickey
I think you are talking about a Republic with some kind of Federal Constitution. Each “area” having its own politic and sharing the “Nation” with other areas.
Fianna Fail and the Green Party would never agree that a Republic is “good” for the Irish people.
Fianna Fail “know” the heart of the Irish People. The Green Party “know” propaganda. They were trained by Green Europeans. Let’s call them Watermelons for the moment.
It is perfectly obvious that the people are incapable of understanding that the Treasury should be looted for €100bn to enrich the Oligarchy.
Given the ignorance of the public why would Fianna Fail and the Green Party want a Constitution that guarantees the rights of a Citizen.
The Citizens are entirely unaware that their Republic will die on Tuesday, March 30, 2010.
@ David O’Donnell
What is the probability of three former leaders of Fine Gale turning coat and joining the looting of a Nation?
Slim I think.
Did Fitzgerald have to make such an issue of, what is obviously now, petty cash.
I think not.
Did Dukes have to undertake the Manqué of Dr Frankenstein to make the Anglo creature live again?
I think not.
Did Bruton have to stab his brother in the back?
I think not.
Et tu Bruton.
Et tu brother.
@ Brian O’ Hanlon
“I am not saying they consistently achieved perfection. I am not saying the company was perfect (no more than any companies out there are). But what I liked to see, and what gave me confidence in the human spirit, was people trying and aiming to achieve better all the time, via cooperation. It was sweet.”
Have you any idea just what a load of bollock that is?