Oireachtas – the Dáil
The Oireachtas is the national parliament of Ireland. It consists of the Dáil (lower house) and Seanad (upper house). Details of how it is elected and its powers are set out in the Constitution.
The Oireachtas has the sole law-making power in the land. In practice, however, the government, through the political process, usually controls the lawmaking agenda.
The Dáil appoints the Taoiseach who in turn nominates the government who are formally appointed by the President. The Dáil 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 Dáil. The government will usually control the Seanad.
The government must consist of members of the Dáil with a maximum of two members of the Senate. The Dáil debates, amends and passes laws. It holds the government and ministers accountable to the people.
The Dáil has exclusive powers in relation to raising tax. It oversees the government, particularly through Dáil committees. It represents the people and legitimises the government.
The Dáil consists of 158 members elected by 39 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 Dáil are elected by direct election in a general election or by-election.
Dáil procedures are laid out in standing orders. They determine the conduct of everyday business in the Dáil. Conventions and practice supplement standing orders.
Members of the Oireachtas have privilege from defamation and other liability for statements made in the Dáil or Seanad. Certain conventions exist to ensure that this privilege is not abused.
The Dáil sits for three sessions annually. It meets on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Conventionally, a Minister or Minister of State is present for each debate. The Minister is accompanied by officials who assist in 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.
Some documents, including statutory instruments and reports, are required to be laid before the Dáil. They are rarely, if ever, debated. Generally, in Dáil votes, the questions are asked 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.
Stages for Passing a Bill in the Dáil
Proposals for laws are initiated as Bills. About 30 to 50 Bills are passed each year. Laws allow Ministers and other bodies to make delegated rules by statutory instruments. There are generally between 5o0 and 700 statutory instruments issued per year.
A bill passes through the Dáil in five stages. The title of the Bill gives a description of its purpose. This appears on the order paper.
The first stage is a formality with little debate. It involves notifying the house that the Bill has been initiated. The date for the second reading is then 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 may 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 to full Dáil proceedings. Amendments may be made by way of addition or deletion. They may not conflict with the fundamental principle of the Bill. Amendments from the opposition are sometimes although rarely accepted.
Next, in the fourth stage, the committees report to the house. The only permissible amendments are those which arise from the committee stage.
The fifth stage is usually a formality. This stage occurs immediately after the report (fourth stage). A Bill, if passed by the Dail, moves to the Seanad.
Bills at Senate/Seanad Stage
When a Bill is initiated and subsequently passed in the Dáil, it is transferred to the Seanad. There are a number of stages in the Seanad broadly equivalent to those in the Dáil. The Bill goes through a further process of debate and committee examination.
The Seanad has 90 days (or any longer period if 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, however, 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 Seanad has only 21 days to consider them and may only make recommendations, not amendments. 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 been passed by the Dáil by the end of that time.
In theory, members of the Dáil or Seanad who are not members of the Government can introduce Bills. These are known as private members’ Bills. Procedures for the initiation of a private member’s Bill are different to those 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 private members’ Bills actually 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, these Bills simply combine a number of existing laws into a single piece of legislation. There are special simplified procedures.
Private Bills relate to particular bodies or localities to whom they give specific powers beyond the general law. 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 their 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 general budget in September/October. The Dáil considers the estimates for each department presented by its Minister.
The budget includes annual taxation proposals. There is a special procedure by which such tax proposals can come into force immediately on Budget day by resolution of the Dáil.
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 Dáil 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 available from the previous year, 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 estimates and approval must be sought.
TDs can hold the government accountable through questions, both written and oral. A vast number of parliamentary questions – of the order of 40,000 to 45,000 – are raised each year.
TDs may ask the Taoiseach questions during a 45 minute period on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. 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 issues. An hour and three quarters on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and an hour and twenty minutes on Thursdays are set aside for parliamentary questions.
TDs submit their questions in writing at least three 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.
The Senate is a House of the Oireachtas and therefore must pass all law. However, it plays a secondary role. The purpose of the Senate is to provide a second chamber with expertise regarding policy formation on particular matters.
The Senate also acts as a counterbalance to the Dáil. It has fewer powers and the Dáil has primacy. Ultimately, the Dáil 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 during which a decision of the Dáil 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 most often 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 innovative role in initiating certain legislation in recent years. Up to two members of the Senate may also be members of the government.
The Senate does not usually initiate legislation. Generally, it considers legislation initiated by the Dáil. Only occasionally is any significant amendment suggested in the Senate stage.
In the case of Bills initiated in the Senate, the Senator who initiates the Bill has the appropriate rights of audience.
The Senate or Seanad consists of 60 members. Six are elected by proportional representation from university panels. The electorate consists of registered graduates of the National University of Ireland and the University of Dublin (Trinity College). Eleven members are nominated by the Taoiseach. This generally guarantees a government majority.
The remaining 43 members are elected by five vocational panels. This system of vocational panels reflects a trend of the 1930s when the Constitution was adopted. The panels represent the following areas:
- National language, culture, literature, art, education, law and medicine
- Agriculture, fisheries and allied matters
- Labour matters
- Industry and commerce
- Public administration and social services
Each panel is divided into sub-panels. One contains candidates nominated by no less than four members of the Oireachtas. The other contains names nominated by nominating bodies. There is legislation dealing with the registration of a nominating body.
Panel members are elected by an electorate consisting of members of the incoming Dail, outgoing Seanad and county and city councils, amounting to approximately 1,000 people.
Oireachtas committees have played an enhanced role in recent years. Committees may consist of members of the Dáil or Seanad only or of both. Committees may make detailed enquiries into particular matters and examine witnesses.
They have no decision making powers in themselves. They prepare reports for presentation to the Oireachtas, for the purpose of which they may engage consultants. 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 members from either the Dáil or Seanad, but not both. They deal with specialised subjects referred to them by the Dáil or at committee stages of Bills. Terms of reference allow them to summon witnesses and 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 for 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 the Good Friday Agreement, health and children, social and family affairs, transport, climate change, energy, constitutional amendment and 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 is being made to the Dáil. More recently, however, it has been common 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 Dáil 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 awareness 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 on implications for Ireland. Proposals may be defined into two categories of importance.
The committee may decide to hold hearings, seek the 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 when negotiating the legislation at EU level.
Most committees meet publicly and some proceedings are televised. Committees may order the attendance of specific 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.
Each 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 policies. They may only explain policies. This also applies to members of An Garda Síochána and the Defence Force. Judges, the President, the DPP and the Attorney General cannot be compelled.
The following evidence 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 and tax assessment information. Failure to attend when summoned is an offence. Giving false evidence constitutes perjury.
Declaration of Interests
Ministers and members of the Dáil and Seanad 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 when speaking on a particular matter. The Dáil select committee on members’ interests provides guidelines and advice on individual matters for members.
There is a disclosure requirement 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 incur 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. Expenses may only be incurred on certain goods, property and services (e.g. posters, leaflets, displays and advertisements) used during the election period and are subject to expenditure limits. There are no equivalent limits for parties.
Most TDs have secretaries who may be located on the Oireachtas premises or in constituency offices. Each TD is entitled to employ one secretarial assistant and one parliamentary assistant. Senators have a half share.
Parliamentary assistants help TDs in writing speeches and researching issues on legislation. TDs and Senators are allowed telephone facilities and an 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 the Department of Finance.