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.