Why Independent TDs Should Demand A Fixed-Term Dáil as the Price of Government
In May 2010, after an inconclusive general election in which no single party emerged with a parliamentary majority, the British Conservative leader David Cameron reached out to his Liberal Democrat counterpart with a “big, open, comprehensive offer” to form a “partnership” government between the Tories and the Lib Dems. In the midst of the obvious historical importance of the U.K.’s first peacetime coalition government in 70 years, many foreign observers failed to spot the small constitutional revolution that underpinned it: what would later become the Fixed Term Parliament Act (“FTPA”), which removed one of the Prime Minister’s “royal prerogatives” – the power to advise the Queen, at any time of the PM’s choosing, to dissolve parliament and call a general election.
Despite the optics presented by the love-in in the Downing Street Rose Garden when the coalition deal was announced, the FTPA was born out of a mutual mistrust between the two parties. Because coalition government was such a novelty for the Westminster parliament, both sides were scared that the other would flounce out of the arrangement at a time of the party’s convenience and force an election at a moment of maximum electoral advantage.
The FTPA eliminated the Prime Minister’s prerogative to call a general election, designed to calm Lib Dem jitters about Cameron double-crossing them and going for a majority somewhere down the line. In exchange, the ability of the Opposition to bring down the Government was circumscribed: the only means of forcing the fall of the Government is for the House of Commons to pass a motion of no confidence (and even this requires a two-week “grace period” before a dissolution of Parliament, during which efforts to form a new government should take place).
The parallels with the ongoing negotiations between Fine Gael and various Independents after Ireland’s own inconclusive election are obvious. And of all the political players in the new fissiparous Dáil, the grouping of independents that appears likely to lend support to a Fine Gael minority government has the most to lose and least to gain from a new general election any time soon.
The combined votes in the Dáil of Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and AAA-PBP will, on the current Dáil arithmetic, only ever be eight independents away from bringing down the Government, should they be so minded. And while Fianna Fáil may give a scouts’ honour promise not to force a new election within a given timeframe, it is a brave independent TD that would stake his seat in the Dáil on Micheál Martin passing over the chance to become Taoiseach because of a gentleman’s agreement he previously made with Enda Kenny.
The way out of this is for the independents to insist on an Irish equivalent to the FTPA. The first order of business of the new government should be to legislate for the date of the next general election to be in June 2020, and the third Friday in June every four years subsequent. As with the FTPA, the only way this schedule could be altered and an early general election called would be for the Dáil to vote by a two-thirds majority to call a general election. In practice, this means only a combination of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and a dozen other TDs could alter the arrangement and call an early general election.
A Fixed Term Dáil Act would greatly enhance the authority of the Dáil and promote the power of the legislature at the expense of the executive. The Government would be forced to find agreement for policies across the floor, while the Opposition would no longer be afforded the luxury of opposing all measures for the sake of opposition. The cost to the country would be a political stalemate that few would welcome at a time when there are serious issues to be addressed.
And a FTDA would eliminate a significant part of the parlour-game aspect of parliamentary politics that surrounds the “Will he?/Won’t he?” decision of the Taoiseach to choose the date of the next election. Advance knowledge of the date of the next general election will allow all parties, not just Fine Gael, to plan their strategies with reasonable confidence, meaning support for such a bill would likely extend beyond Fine Gael and the independents, meaning it could even perhaps be passed without the support of Fianna Fáil, if necessary.
Because of the wording of Article 13 of Bunreacht na hÉireann, a Fixed Term Dáil Act might require an amendment to Article 13, Section 2. Where it currently reads “Dáil Éireann shall be summoned and dissolved by the President on the advice of the Taoiseach”, the words “and with the consent of Dáil Éireann” should be added.
Because any amendment to the Constitution would require approval by the people in a referendum, Ireland should take this opportunity to carry out its first plebiscite entirely conducted by postal ballot. Not only would this be a welcome innovation in extending a form of direct democracy in Ireland, it would also mean the broader electorate will be required to give their imprimatur to the minority government arrangements currently being negotiated by Fine Gael and the independents, and which will ultimately require the assent of Micheál Martin and Fianna Fáil.
Approval by the electorate in a postal referendum would also give the prospective incoming minority Government a greater legitimacy than it otherwise would have. It would also give it strength and durability, providing the country the stability it needs, while also requiring Fine Gael to find consensus within the Dáil to advance policy proposals. The alternative is a government that is only as strong as Micheál Martin’s word. It is in the power of the independent TDs to modernize an archaic aspect of Irish democracy that even the British, from whom we inherited it, have dispensed with.
But even if the independent TDs are not feeling so publicly-spirited, they would be well advised to remember the words of former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds: “It’s the little things that trip you up.”