Oireachtas – the Dail
This Irish national parliament is the Oireachtas and consists of the Dail and Seanad. Details of how it is elected and its powers are set out in the Constitution.
The Oireachtas is the sole law-making power in the land. In practice, the government through the political process usually controls the lawmaking agenda and process.
The Dail appoints the Taoiseach who in turn nominates the government who are formally appointed by the President. The Dail may effectively remove a government by a vote of no confidence. In practice, the government must command a majority (or a majority of those who vote) of the deputies in the Dail. In practice, the government will usually control the Seanad.
The government must consist of members of the Dail with a maximum of two members of the Senate. The Dail debates, amends and passes laws. It holds the government and ministers accountable to the people.
The Dail has exclusive functions in relation to raising tax. It oversees the government, particularly through Dail committees. It represents the people and legitimises the government.
The Dail consists of 158 members elected by 40 constituencies. Constituencies vary in size between three and five members. The election is by a single transferable vote.
The Constitution lays down that TDs should represent the population proportionately Members of the Dail are elected by direct election in a general election or by-election.
Dail procedures are laid out in standing orders. They determine the conduct of everyday business in the Dail. In addition conventions and practice supplement standing orders.
Members of the Oireachtas have privilege from defamation and other liability for their statements in the Dail or Seanad. Certain conventions exist to ensure that this privilege is not abused.
The Dail sits in three sessions annually. It meets on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Conventionally a Minister or Minister of State is present throughout each debate. The Minister is accompanied by officials who assist during the debate and take notes.
The will of the house is expressed through motions. These are proposals which express the will of the house on a particular matter. A substantive motion deals with a matter in a particular way. A procedural motion deals with matters such as adjournment.
Members vote electronically or by passing through the lobbies with tellers for the government and opposition. The result is announced by the Ceann Comhairle. Dail debates have always been published and are now available online.
Some documents are required to be laid before the Dail. This includes statutory instruments, report etc. They are rarely if ever debated. Generally, in Dail votes, the questions are put orally at first. Ten TDs can call for a vote. Votes are electronic. However, each side’s party whips can call for a walk through vote.
Government Oireachtas debates are reported and printed. They are now available on the website.
Bill Stages Dail
Proposals for laws are initiated as Bills. About 30 to 50 Bills are passed in each year. Laws allow Ministers and other bodies to make delegated rules by statutory instruments. There are generally between 5o0 to 700 statutory instruments per year.
A bill passes through the Dail in five stages. The title of a Bill gives a description of its purpose. This appears on order paper.
The first stage is a formality with little debate. It involves notifying the house that the Bill is initiated. The date for the second reading is fixed.
At the second stage, the minister deals with the principles of the Bill and explains its necessity. The proposal is debated. Alternatives may be sought. Amendments are not be permitted. The opposition may oppose by voting against the Bill.
The Bill is considered in detail at the third or committee stage. It is considered section by section by one of the specialised committees. The procedure is relatively informal compared with full Dail proceedings.
Amendments may be added by way of addition or deletion. They may not conflict with the fundamental principle of the Bill. Opposition amendments are sometimes although rarely accepted.
The committees then report to the house as the fourth stage. The only permissible amendments are those which arise from committee stage. The fifth stage is usually a formality. This stage is taken immediately after the report (fourth stage). A Bill, if passed by the Dail, then moves to the Seanad.
Bill Senate / Seanad Stage
When a Bill is initiated in the Dail and passed, it is transferred to the Senate. There are a number of stages in the Senate broadly equivalent to those in the Dail. It will go through the process of debate and committee examination again. #
The Seanad has 90 days (or any longer period agreed by both Houses) to consider the Bill and to
- pass the Bill without any amendment
- reject the Bill completely or
- return the Bill to the Dáil with amendments
If the Seanad rejects the Bill or returns it to the Dáil with amendments that the Dáil does not accept, the Bill will lapse after 180 days. The Dáil may, within this period, pass a resolution declaring that the Bill is deemed to have been passed by both Houses.
Money bills are those involving taxation, debt or loans. The Senate has only 21 days to consider them and may recommendations only. It cannot amend them. If a money bill is not returned within 21 days or it is returned subject to recommendations that are not accepted it is deemed to have passed the Dail by the end of that time.
In theory members of the Dail can introduce Bills. The procedures for the initiation of a private members Bill is different to that for a government Bill. A Bill requiring expenditure of money can’t proceed beyond the second stage without a resolution approving the expenditure.
Relatively few final private members Bill become law. Sometimes, the government may accept the principle and request that it be withdrawn in favour of a government measure.
Consolidation Bills are those which tidy up the law. Generally, the Bill simply puts together the existing law in one piece of legislation the existing law. There are special simplified procedures.
Private Bills relate to particular bodies or localities. They are relatively rare. They tend to deal with private organisations particularly those in respect of which private Bills were passed historically.
The Constitution obliges the government to prepare estimates of receipts and expenditures for each year. Each Minister reviews the Department’s work and outlines proposals explaining the requirement to raise the money concerned. Estimates are presented as spending items and are subdivided into categories.
A White Paper containing the assessment is published by the Department of Finance prior to the budget generally in September / October. The Dail considers the estimates for each department presented by its Minister.
The budget includes the annual taxation proposals. There is a special procedure by which such tax proposals can come into force immediately on Budget day by Dail resolution.
The Budget is usually presented in October. The main proposals in the Budget are ultimately reflected in the Finance Bill which is usually published in November.
The Dail must approve the total expenditure. The estimate then becomes the vote for this department.
The Minister for Finance may draw four-fifths of the vote from the previous year available pending consideration of the subsequent years and that year’s estimates and its approval.
An Appropriation Act is given effect in each year to approve the individual estimates and the transfers of money for them. If the department runs out of money supplementary estimate and approval must be sought.
TDs can hold the government accountable through questions, both written and oral. A vast number of parliamentary questions are raised each year of the order of 40,000 to 45,000.
TDs may ask the Taoiseach questions during a 45 minute period on Tuesday and Wednesday. Opposition party leaders are entitled to ask questions or supplementary questions relevant to the business of the day.
Typically the questions are addressed by TDs to Ministers about matters relevant to their department, public affairs or specific constituency matters. An hour and three quarters are set aside on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and an hour and 20 minutes on Thursdays are set aside for parliamentary questions.
TDs submit their questions in writing at least three to four days in advance. Replies may be verbal or written. The Ceann Comhairle’s office vets questions to see that they do not offend certain basic principles.
Senate / Seanad
The Senate is a House of the Oireachtas and which must pass all law. However, it plays a secondary role. The purpose of the Senate is to provide a second chamber with expertise on policy formation on particular matters.
The Senat also acts as a counterbalance to the Dail. It has fewer powers and the Dail has primacy. Ultimately the Dail can force through legislation against the Senate’s will. In the case of so-called money bills which have financial implications, there is a shorter procedure by which a decision of the Dail can prevail.
In practice, the Senate is dominated by politicians which is not surprising given the electorate. Party affiliation rather than relevant professional ability or expertise determines membership.
Senators are commonly people who have previously been TDs, are aspiring TDs or have lost a seat and aspire to regain it.
The Senate has tried to play an innovate role in initiating certain legislation in recent years. Up to two members of the government may be members of the Senate.
The Senate does not usually initiate legislation. Generally, it considers legislation after the Dail has done so. Only occasionally is any significant amendment suggested in the Senate stage.
Some bills are initiated in the Senate. In this case, a Minister will initiate the Bill in the Senate and has appropriate rights of audience.
The Senate or Seanad consists of 60 members. Six are elected by proportional representation from university panels. The electorate is registered graduates of the National University and the University of Dublin respectively. Eleven members are nominated by the Taoiseach which generally guarantees a government majority.
The remaining 43 members are elected for five vocational panels. The vocational system of panels reflects a trend of the 1930s when the Constitution was adopted. The panels are:
- National language, culture, literature art, education, law and medicine.
- Agriculture, fisheries allied matters.
- Labour matters.
- Industry and commerce.
- Public administration and social services.
Each panel is divided into sub-panels. One contains candidates nominated by not less than four members of the Oireachtas. The other contains names nominated by nominating bodies. There is legislation dealing with the registration of nominating body.
43 members are elected by an electorate consisting of members of the Dail, Seanad, county and city councils amounting to approximately 1,000 people.
Dail Oireachtas committees have played and enhanced role in recent years. Committees may consist of members of the Dail only or Seanad only or both. Committees may make detailed enquiries into particular matters and examine witnesses.
They may engage consultants. They have no powers of decision in themselves. They prepare reports for presentation to the Oireachtas. The membership of committees is broadly proportionate to the relevant strengths of the parties.
There are certain standing committees which are created automatically. This includes the committee of public accounts.
Select committees consist of one Dail or Seanad only. They deal with specialised subjects referred to them by the Dail or at committee stages of Bills. Terms of reference allow them to summon witnesses, require papers and records.
Committees have substantial powers to require witnesses to attend and respond to questions. Witnesses can be required to answer questions. Committees can grant a witness privilege against their answers being used against them in other contexts.
Joint committees consist of members of both houses who sit together. They may consist of experts on particular matters. There are joint committees on most areas equivalent to government departments including, for example, agriculture, fisheries, food, communications, energy, natural resources, European affairs, European security needs, financial public service, foreign affairs, implementation of Good Friday Agreement, health and children, social and family affairs, transport, climate change, energy, constitutional amendment, economic regulatory affairs.
Special committees are set up to deal with particular Bills at the third committee stage. They exist only for as long as the Bill is being considered and the report being made to the Dail. More recently there is a practice to refer Bills to select committees responsible for particular areas.
EU Scrutiny Committees
A significant amount of important legislation comes into Irish law under European Union requirements. In effect, this is law passed by European bodies being adopted or transposed into Irish law. The EU Scrutiny Committee and EU Affairs Committee of the Dail deal with the initiation of legislation for consideration by the EU.
One committee deals with the initiation stage of new legislative proposals, before they go to the EU process. This is an early stage consideration. The purpose is to raise information and highlight possible implications for Ireland.
Within four weeks of receipt of fresh legislation, the responsible department will provide the committee with a short paper indicating the nature and purpose of the proposal and initial views of implications for Ireland. Proposals may be defined into two categories of importance.
The committee may decide to hold hearings, seek views of interested parties and forward its findings to both houses of the Oireachtas. The government is obliged to take account of the views presented by the committee in negotiating on the legislation at EU level.
Most committees meet publicly and some proceedings are televised. Committees may order the attendance of persons and records. They may receive submissions and hear evidence. They may require Ministers to attend to discuss policies and proposals for legislation. They can require the principal officeholders in departments and state bodies to attend.
The committee has its secretariat and a clerk. Ministers are generally not chairpersons. Members of the opposition are committee chairpersons.
Not all committees have the power to compel witnesses to attend and answer questions . This privilege is granted by the subcommittee of the committee on procedure and privileges.
Persons attending committees have privileges and immunities in relation to evidence and documentation furnished. Where a committee believes a person has relevant information they can be compelled to appear to give evidence. This applies to the public, the government, civil servants etc.
Civil servants may not give evidence expressing opinions in relation to the merits of the policy. They may explain policies. This also applies to the Garda Siochana and Defence Force members. Judges and the President, the DPP and Attorney General cannot be compelled.
The following cannot be compelled: government meeting discussions, government committee discussions, matters before Courts, matters impacting on the security of the State, matters related to law enforcement, tax assessment information. Failure to attend when sommoned is an offence. Giving false evidence constitutes perjury.
Declaration of Interests
Ministers and members of the Dail and Senate must make annual declarations of their interests. They are obliged to declare any conflict relevant to fulfilling their functions. Interests must be entered in a register.
Members must declare their material interest in matters when speaking on a particular matter. The Dail select committee on members’ interest provides guidelines and advice on individual matters for members.
There is a disclosure requirment for political donations above a certain level. Donations below this amount need not be disclosed.
There are strict rules in relation to elections and election expenses. Each candidate must have an election agent who is the only person who can occur expenses.
Within a fixed period after the election, a statement must be furnished to the Standards in Public Office Commission with evidence of election expenses. The Commission lays copies of the statements before the houses of the Oireachtas.
The agent furnishes the Commission with itemised written statements together with the vouchers. A proportion of candidates’ expenditure is reimbursed from public money. The person must obtain at least one quarter of a quota in the election.
The Standards in Public Office Commission must certify details of actual expenses. There are spending limits for candidates only. Expenses may only be incurred on certain goods, property, services used the election and are subject to expenditure limits. There are no equivalent limits for parties.
Election expenses incurred on goods, property, services, e.g. posters, leaflets, displays, advertisements used during the election period are subject to the expenditure limits.
Most TDs have secretaries who may be located in the Oireachtas premises are in constituency offices. Each TD is entitled to employ one secretarial assistant and one parliamentary assistant. Senators have a half share.
A parliamentary assistants help TDs in writing speeches and researching issues on legislation. TDs and Senators are allowed telephone facilities ad allowance.
A total staff of about 500 serve directly under the houses of the Oireachtas. They are appointed by the Taoiseach on the nomination of the appropriate chairperson and Department of Finance.
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