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Dáil Éireann

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Dáil Éireann (IPA pronunciation: d̪ˠaːlʲ ˈeːrʲən̪ˠ) is the lower house of the Oireachtas (parliament) of Ireland. It is directly elected at least once in every five years under the system of proportional representation, by means of the Single Transferable Vote (STV). Its powers are similar to those of lower houses under many other bicameral parliamentary systems and it is by far the dominant branch of the Oireachtas. It effectively has the power to pass any law it wishes, and to nominate and remove the Taoiseach (head of government). Since 1922, it has met in Leinster House in Dublin.

Contents

Composition

The current Dáil, the 31st Dáil, has 166 members. Membership of the Dáil is open to citizens who are 18 or older. A member of the Dáil is known as a Teachta Dála (often abbreviated TD), or deputy.

The Dáil electorate consists of Irish and United Kingdom citizens over 18 years of age who are registered to vote in the Republic of Ireland. Under the Constitution of Ireland a general election for Dáil Éireann must occur at least once in every seven years, but a five year limit is currently specified by statute. The Taoiseach (head of government) can, by making a request to the president, dissolve the Dáil at any time, in which case a general election must occur within thirty days.

The STV electoral system broadly produces proportional representation in the Dáil. The small size of the constituencies used, however, usually gives a small advantage to the larger parties and under-represents smaller parties. Since the 1990s the norm in the state has been coalition governments. Prior to 1989, however, one-party governments, especially of the Fianna Fáil party, were very common. The multi-seat constituencies required by STV mean that candidates must often compete for election with others from the same party. This increases voter choice but is accused by some of producing TDs who are excessively parochial. Two failed attempts — 1959 and 1968 — have been made to change to the British Single Member Plurality ('First-past-the-post') electoral system. Both were rejected in referenda. By-elections occur under the Alternative Vote system. A brief experiment with electronic voting in a number of constituencies in the 2002 general election, proved highly unpopular, and the 2007 election saw a return to traditional ballot papers.

Currently every constituency elects between three and five TDs (the average is around four). The constitution specifies that no constituency may return fewer than three TDs but does not specify any upper limit. However, statute (Section 6 of the Electoral Act 1997) places a maximum size of five members on constituencies. The constitution requires that constituency boundaries be reviewed at least once in every twelve years, so that boundaries may be redrawn to accommodate changes in population. Boundary changes are currently drafted by an independent commission, and its recommendations are usually followed. Malapportionment is forbidden by the constitution.

Number of members

Under the Constitution of Ireland there must never be fewer than one TD for every thirty thousand of the population, nor more than one for every twenty thousand. The fact, however, that all ministers must be drawn from the Republic's small parliament and the need, therefore, for the lower house to provide a sufficiently large pool of talent for skilled individuals to be found for positions in the Government, has meant that in practice the ratio of TDs to citizens has always stayed close to the latter figure. In the 29th Dáil there was one TD for every 21 thousand citizens, one of the most generous such ratios anywhere in the world. With the adoption of the current constitution in 1937 the membership of the Dáil was reduced from 153 to 138, but in the 1960s Seán Lemass as Taoiseach found difficulty in appointing ministers. The number was therefore increased, only to be increased more substantially in 1981 to the current figure of 166.

Ceann Comhairle

Main article: Ceann Comhairle

The speaker, or presiding member, of Dáil Éireann is the Ceann Comhairle. The Ceann Comhairle is chosen from among TDs, but is expected to observe strict impartiality. Despite this, the government will usually try to select one of its own for the position, if its numbers allow. In order to protect the neutrality of the chair, an incumbent Ceann Comhairle does not seek re-election as a TD but rather is deemed automatically returned by their constituency at a general election, unless they are retiring. The Ceann Comhairle does not vote except in the event of a tie.

Powers

While in principle Dáil Éireann is only one of three components of the Oireachtas (the other two being the President of Ireland and Seanad Éireann), in practice the powers the constitution grants to the Dáil render it by far the dominant branch, meaning that most bills passed by Dáil Éireann will ultimately become law. In addition to its legislative role, it is the Dáil that designates the Taoiseach. The Dáil may also pass a motion of no confidence in the Government, in which case the Taoiseach must either seek a parliamentary dissolution or resign. It has happened only once that this did not result in a general election - in 1994, John Bruton of Fine Gael became Taoiseach when the Labour Party left the Fianna Fáil coalition government led by Albert Reynolds.

The Dáil also has exclusive power to:

  • Propose the budget (which may not originate in the Senate).
  • Ratify treaties.
  • Declare war or permit the state to participate in a war.

Activities

Dáil Éireann determines its own standing orders and its members are protected by certain rights arising from parliamentary privilege. In line with other modern parliamentary systems, TDs do not generally vote first and foremost in accordance with their consciences or the wishes of their constituents, but must follow the instructions of party whips, a practice that originated in the Irish Parliamentary Party. Except in exceptional circumstances, the Dáil meets in public. The Dáil currently has three standing committees and thirteen select committees.

Debates are rigidly structured and extremely limited, lacking the passion of the US Senate or UK House of Commons. TDs often read slowly from prepared scripts. By contrast, debates in Seanad Éireann are known for their repartée.

There is a common tactic, well known to journalists, of a TD intentionally breaking the rules and being disorderly, in order to force the Ceann Comhairle to throw them out of the chamber. This usually captures 'news bites' (as intended) and is designed to cast the particular TD in the role of defending his area against the government.

Standing committees

  • Committee on Procedure and Privileges
    • Sub-Committee on Members' Services
    • Sub-Committee on Dáil Reform
  • Committee of Public Accounts
  • Committee on Members' Interests of Dáil Éireann

Select committees

  • Select Committee on Agriculture and Food
  • Select Committee on Arts, Sport, Tourism, Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs
  • Select Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources
  • Select Committee on Education and Science
  • Select Committee on Enterprise and Small Business
  • Select Committee on Environment and Local Government
  • Select Committee on European Affairs
  • Select Committee on Finance and the Public Service
  • Select Committee on Foreign Affairs
  • Select Committee on Health and Children
  • Select Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights
  • Select Committee on Social and Family Affairs
  • Select Committee on Transport

History

Precursors

The first legislature to exist in Ireland was the Parliament of Ireland and the first legislative lower house was the Irish House of Commons of this body. However the Parliament of Ireland was abolished under the Act of Union of 1800 . Irish nationalists first convened Dáil Éireann as a revolutionary parliament in 1919 and while it successfully took over most functions of government it was not recognised under British law.

In 1921 the British government established a legislature called the Parliament of Southern Ireland in an effort to appease nationalists by granting Ireland limited home rule. However this body was rejected and boycotted by nationalists whose allegiance remained with the Dáil. Nonetheless, because the First Dáil was illegal under the British constitution, the lower house of the Parliament of Southern Ireland, the House of Commons of Southern Ireland, is considered in British legal theory (though not in Irish legal theory) as the precursor to the Dáil.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty, which ended the Irish War of Independence in 1922, therefore had to be ratified by three parliaments - that of the United Kingdom; the First Dáil; and the House of Commons of Southern Ireland.

Revolutionary Dáil (1919-1922)

Main article: Dáil Éireann (Irish Republic)

The current Dáil derives from the 1937 Constitution of Ireland, but claims a direct line of descent from the 'First Dáil' of 1919. This Dáil was an extra-legal assembly established by Sinn Féin MPs elected to the House of Commons in the 1918 UK General Election. Upon winning a majority of Irish seats in the election (many uncontested), Sinn Féin MPs refused to recognise the British parliament and instead convened as the First Dáil Éireann (translated as "Assembly of Ireland"): the unicameral legislature of a new notional Irish Republic, and the first Irish parliament to exist since 1801.

The Dáil of the Irish Republic, however, was only recognised internationally by the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic, despite intense lobbying by Irish-Americans in the USA. The first meeting of the Dáil occurred in Dublin, in the Mansion House. Subsequently the body was forced underground and met in a number of locations.

Irish Free State (1922-1937)

Main article: Dáil Éireann (Irish Free State)

The Dáil of the Irish Republic was succeeded in 1922 by the Dáil of the Irish Free State. The Irish Free State, comprising the twenty-six southern and western counties of the island of Ireland, was established under the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty. Dáil Éireann (now described as a "Chamber of Deputies") became the lower house of a new legislature called the Oireachtas. The first Dáil to exist under the constitution of the Irish Free State succeeded the Second Dáil of the Irish Republic and so was styled the Third Dáil. The Third Dáil, and every subsequent Dáil, has met in Leinster House.

Constitution of Ireland (1937-present)

The Constitution of Ireland, adopted in 1937, established the modern Irish state, described today as the Republic of Ireland. Under the constitution a new legislature retained the title Oireachtas, and its lower house remained Dáil Éireann (although it was now described as a "House of Representatives"). The first Dáil to meet under the Constitution of Ireland was described as the Ninth Dáil.

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