Yesterday Dáil Éireann, our national parliament, returned from its long Christmas break. While most Irish people had a few days off work to celebrate Christmas and the incoming of a New Year, but went back to work in the first days of January, our elected representatives gave themselves an extremely generous six-week winter holiday.
Given that they also have a very long summer break, and that last year an extra five weeks were lost due to the general election, the Dáil did probably not sit for more than 75 days in 2007. Even without an election interrupting procedures, there are on average seldom more than 100 days of parliamentary session in a calendar year.
This means that our parliament has become a part-time institution, while TDs (members of the Dáil) are getting paid ever more money and generous expenses allowances for less and less work. Since double (and multiple) mandates were abolished and TDs can no longer hold other positions (like seats on city and county councils), one would have thought they would spend more time in the Dáil. But that seems not to be the case.
We hear from various politicians, especially from members of the opposition parties, that "there is never enough time for debates", and ever so often legislation is rushed through the Dáil in amazing haste. This is often the case with very important laws, pushed through as "emergency legislation". One has to wonder how thorough and proper such legislation can be, when it cannot be probed and checked appropriately by TDs because the government does not allocate enough time for debates.
I am not a legal expert, but I am told that many bills passed by the Dáil are flawed or have loop holes through which people and companies rich enough to employ expensive lawyers can slip if they so please. Would parliamentarians spend more time in their work place, this might not be the case. So the questions have to be asked: Does the Dáil actually work well? And is it taking enough care of our national interests and representing the people who elected its members?
One also has to question if a country with just over four million people needs a 166-seat parliament. Compared with other much larger nations, the people of Ireland are rather over-represented, at least when it comes to the numbers. For example, the USA, a nation of 300 million, has 400 members in the House of Representatives. Germany, with a population of over 83 million, has 614 seats in the Bundestag, the lower chamber of the federal parliament, while in the British House of Commons 646 members represent around 60 million citizens.
With ever more legislation being decided on European level (and only later introduced into the legal systems of the EU member states through relatively easy procedures), one has to wonder if Ireland can really justify 166 TDs for much longer. Perhaps a parliamentary reform could do a lot to streamline and thus to strengthen both Houses of the Oireachtas. Strangely enough, most political parties have suggested exactly that - while in opposition - but never gone near the idea when they were in government.
Next time you meet one of your local TDs, it might be a good idea to raise the matter with him or her. Only if we talk with our elected representatives, they will actually know what we think, and especially what we think of them.
The Emerald Islander