THE SWORD, THE GUILLOTINE AND THE CYCLE

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By Eithne Hogan

THE SWORD

Over the course of 2015, we have witnessed the government utilising and abusing its majority position ‘to impose the guillotine on legislation, and do so for little more than administrative and ministerial convenience’ and a lot more for the government’s continued role-play and position as the ultimate cool and loyal kid to the EU international legislative machine. This current government has exploited the guillotine and has done so with arrogant finesse and total disregard for the voices of the opposition. More ominously, they additionally did this with absolutely no cognisance in mind nor sight that there ought to be any regard for the voices of the people who elect them to begin with. This post-election instant amnesia occurs promptly as comfortable in their newfound ‘positions of power’, these particular ‘types’ operate without any conscious sign or awareness of the people they allegedly represent.

“The effect has been to reduce the Dáil to a mere rubber stamp for Government legislation”: These insightful and heartfelt words, believe it or not, were spoken as far back as 2004, when awaiting in the cupboards of perennial dictatorial wannabes was none other than our industrious and conscientious Enda Kenny, half the partner in the co-host@ripley-believe-it-or-not-irishcoalition.com. And [furthermore, he laments], it reduces the status of the Dáil… to little more than nuisance value.

You’d love to say that we almost believed him. You’d love to laugh ridiculously, hold your sides and say in earnest that we nearly believed him. But the fact of the matter is that somewhere along the way between 2004 and 2011, a large part of our voting population and citizenry did believe him because other than that, we would not now be in the position of watching on and no longer believing in this utterance which coincidentally now emanates from the biggest instigator of this reprehensible and arrogant political practice himself.

Whatever it might have been when established as an effective instrumental tool, it has not become! Though I suppose that totally depends on which side of the Dáil you are sitting. Perhaps if we disbelieved then, and had we been more mindful of numerous more inconsistencies and hypocrisies and contradictions in the gathering storm; we might even have seen through the futility of the practice itself years ago when weighted against the concept of what is intended to be actual democracy. But of course, as a stake-holder in our own democracy, we are never ever encouraged to do ‘incredible’ things like that – actually think – or hold an intelligent opinion and actively participate in our own governance – especially when it involves the process of decision-making or producing legislation. Representative democracy determines that we do our jobs with pencil briefly and all we are asked for as a majority and an obliging citizenry on voting day is our hasty signature and correctly assigned X and our mission after that act is to please ‘step away from the ballot box’ – until we are needed once more for the next convenient photoshoot or poignant political stunt.

Alongside the Labour party, FG’s use of the guillotine over the last 5 years and especially in 2015 has been selectively administered and managed to FastTrack some of the most troubling and complex legislation which called for far more time than the allocated fast food provision and service of our current government – legislation which held serious implications for our society and interrelations with Europe and the never never lands beyond. Consequently, deputies especially from the opposition do not get time to speak on these occasions; or if they do, their time is severely limited and what they express if they do gets effectively ignored, is overloaded and drowned out by mysterious instantaneous audio error and interference and subsequently suffers the cost in the haste and rush to lodge the documents into the calculated, fast tracking cash register of convenient primarily right-wing agenda politics.

Pa –pinggg!

When the shoe was on the other foot, and FF were the instigators of this practice, legislation passed in this rushed manner merited slating condemnation from critics of this abuse. Joseph O’ Malley in an aptly-titled article written in 2004, “Use of guillotine chops the head off democracy” asserts that ‘the guillotine has become more the parliamentary weapon of first choice for the Government, and less a means of last resort. Read the full article here: http://www.independent.ie/irish-news/use-of-guillotine-chops-the-head-off-democracy-26217729.html

Now more than a decade later when the shoe is on this foot, as it stands in Irish politics at the minute, we are adamantly identifying that we really only have been wearing one pair of shoes all along. The electorate keep on selecting this twosome pair since the independence of the state or continually fall complacently back into what’s seen as by some to be the only ‘reliable’ pair to select from. Each shoe rotates in a cycle between government and opposition but in an interdependent state need to be a pair to pull this democracy off. Instead of thinking through the dramatic role-plays, overtly antagonistic staging, publicity photo shoots and contriving contradictory behaviour; without even accounting for the impact and austere backlash of their policies,  we [well some of us definitely], insist on watching and enabling two cheeks of the same predictable Aras rule our fate and design and implement our destiny. With a little bit of help in making up the numbers from a third ‘let’s just use and drop’ the smaller, more vulnerable and expedient partner. Meanwhile we refuse to admit or prefer to ignore a feasible alternative. And the cost of this decision is exponentially rising. As the damage to our society prevails – in every area of societal life, health, education, housing, food, the environment and all else we hold as dear and of value, the shoes unlike the ones worn by Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, do not bring us compassionately or safely or justly home nor do they compare to the enigma of anything you want them to be potency held by this classic metaphorical symbol.

CHOPPING THE HEAD OFF DEMOCRACY: THE GUILLOTINE

On 9th May 2012, despite FG admonishing the use of the guillotine by FF: the FG/Labour coalition made FF’s practice pale in comparison:

  • 49% of all Acts enacted by the current government were guillotined at all stages of their progression through the Dáil.
  • Of the 47 Bills enacted at the direction of the current government, 37 were introduced by it and 10 were restored from the previous session.
  • Of the 10 Bills restored from the previous session 4, or 40%, were subject to legislative guillotine.
  • Of the 37 Bills introduced and enacted by the current government 28, or 76%, were subject to legislative guillotine.
  • All three proposals to amend the Constitution since the current government has come to power have been subject to a legislative guillotine at all stages of their progression through the Houses of the Oireachtas.

This led to a call for democratic reform by the then Technical Group.The Technical Group concluded in drawing attention to the fact that guillotining is not the only worrying trend in the approach to legislating taken by the current government, guillotines have frequently been combined with the late publication of Bills and with the simultaneous scheduling of contentious & guillotined bills. According to the group, this drastically hinders the ability of the opposition to fully scrutinise Bills prior to and during their progression through the Oireachtas.”

But has there been any convincing change since 2012? Here are some comments and samples from 2015:

Friday, 23 January 2015: The Members of the Dáil, whether backbench or Opposition Deputies, are not getting an opportunity for a meaningful and contributory role in the Dáil. We discussed the issue of guillotines, a mechanism the Government was so fond of using until it got caught on the hop in the run-up to last Christmas, when it guillotined that important legislation, the water Bill. It was only then, when it became widely known in public circles how the Government chose to guillotine the establishment of Irish Water, such an important piece of infrastructure, in the space of three hours, that things changed. I acknowledge that the use of guillotines has diminished since then. [Deputy Robert Troy]

Tuesday, 7 July 2015: The Civil Debt (Procedures) Bill: The guillotine is being used to rush this Bill through the Dáil as quickly as possible. It is regressive legislation that targets the low-paid and people on benefits. Its guillotining raises a number of serious questions, particularly about good governance and whether democracy is functioning in terms of the Government’s narrow remit to push its agenda with no consideration for other voices in the Dáil. Conversely, the Government claims that it cannot introduce legislation to stop additional top-ups to the pensions of former Ministers and Taoisigh. The full resources of the Government are being used to guillotine the Second Stage debate of the Civil Debt (Procedures) Bill. Will the Minister consider what the Government is doing? The Bill was published only last month. Its handling is contrary to all of the conventions of the Dáil, as there are supposed to be two weeks between each Stage, yet this has not happened. We object strongly to what is being undertaken. [Gerry Adams]

Thursday, 26 November 2015:

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: There are seven proposals to be put to the House. Is the proposal for dealing with the late sitting agreed?

Deputy Michael McGrath: We object to the Order of Business. This Government promised to end the use of guillotines but we have a flurry of guillotines in today’s order. Our Whip objected to this at the Whips’ meeting last evening. Many of these issues do not need a guillotine and we can debate them appropriately, like adults. For example, yesterday the Finance Bill went through its Remaining Stages in the House and there was to be a guillotine. That was discussed and it was agreed there was no need for a guillotine. It went through slightly after the time at which the guillotine was meant to take effect. There is no need for this approach and we have little enough accountability in this House as it is. Some of these issues warrant more time but others might not, so the time afforded will be adequate. The matters should be dealt with by agreement rather than by ramming through a series of guillotines in a manner which the Government promised would never happen.

Deputy Mary Lou McDonald: It is obvious not just coming into Christmas but coming into the election season that there is a furious pace in ramming through as much legislation as possible. We have no objection to late sittings – far from it – but it is, of course, always better to have more notice than was given in this instance. There is a problem with affording 20-minute slots for debates in the Dáil, as these are clearly inadequate. I agree entirely with Deputy McGrath that there is no need for so many guillotines. It definitely goes against the grain of what was promised by this Government by way of “democratic revolution”, etc. I will raise those points at this stage rather than repeating them as we get to each guillotined matter.

[All excerpts are cited directly from www.oireachtas.ie]

THE CYCLE

So has anything changed since O’ Malley’s article was written in 2004? Has anything really changed? Consider the words of Éamon De Valera way back in 1928, when the motion to be guillotined was a motion to shorten and curtail time in the legislative process, the Guillotine Motion. You just couldn’t make it up, could you?  It was a proposal to impose a parliamentary guillotine in respect of three Bills to amend the Constitution, the effect of which was to limit the Committee Stage of each Bill in the Dáil to four hours and the Report Stages to two hours. [Dr Brian Hunt]

He felt that the imposition of a guillotine was entirely contrary to the raison d’etre of the Dáil:

“… if these tactics are going to be used it seems to me that being here and calling this a deliberative assembly is all a farce, and I will begin to agree with Deputy Aiken that they might as well do what they did before, and bring in a Bill to suppress the Dáil, and constitute themselves dictators … If one section of this House is going to be deprived of its rights to put forward amendments and to discuss in detail everything put forward by the government, then this House ceases to be in any sense a representative assembly.”

 

And what of critical events in 2009: The recent financial and banking crisis necessitated the enactment of several pieces of legislation, some of which underwent a curtailed legislative process. For example, the Anglo Irish Bank Corporation Act 2009 which necessitated the recall of the Houses from their Christmas break was published as a Bill on 20 January and was passed by the Dáil that same afternoon and was passed by the Seanad later that evening. A further piece of emergency legislation which arose as a result of the financial crisis was the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Bill 2009 which was passed by the Dáil within three days of its publication and was passed through all stages in the Seanad in two further days.

 

And that was in a FF government! Or more recently, since serious concerns were raised by the Technical Group in 2012, do you ever see change? It doesn’t look like it, does it? O’ Malley’s opening statement in 2004 holds total currency in January 2016: When the Opposition collectively falls on the Government’s sword it can be a gory sight, and a demeaning one for the Dáil. It happens when the Government uses the guillotine to curtail debate, in order to pass legislation quickly through the Oireachtas. Last week, the Government again unsheathed its parliamentary sword, and left some bloodstains behind on the Dáil carpet.

Replace last week with last month or last year or even with over eighty years and the pattern and practice still holds true. And to add insult to injury, with confessions of tongue in cheek, if the metaphorical carpet of the Dáil were to match its physical wear and tear, wouldn’t the cost of replacing the figurative mess far exceed the €265,000 spent on the plush pile to cover up the Leinster House woolly scandal and state of affairs in 2015? The cost of poorly thought out and/or corrupt or unwarranted legislation is unquantifiable or at minimum not so easily assessed. Because the cost is not just financial. The cost of this legislation impacts on us all as a nation. And the cost of this legislation in its processes and its administration excludes the voices that it primarily impacts upon – the people who live in its lands.

That is the ultimate irony, an irony where we the people are excluded from the process of our own defences and mechanisms. An irony where we the people at a further remove from the TDs in the Dáil don’t even figure into the process of democracy whatsoever. With no participation or power of veto, our voices in the essential sense of the legislative process mean nothing, when even our representatives who do speak and act for us are in a silenced or dubbed stranglehold. And to bring us further into damnation, the metaphor of the parliamentary sword and the measured attacks draw from the body, mind and soul of Irish society’s wounds both injury and death with the brutality of real and flowing blood. Let’s just face it once and for all. Our representative democracy is a done deal. It’s not even dying, it’s dead.

“After all, the people elect the Dáil. The Dáil elects the government. The Dáil is there to hold government to account. The Government is not there to abuse its voting majority status by exploiting the guillotine motion, and subverting parliament’s role to hold the executive to proper account”

And here is the unbreakable cycle. Will the critics now as quoted above be the instigators and exploiters of this practice post-election as was FG and Labour while in opposition? Can we guarantee this? What will we choose? Will we place our pencil on the ballot paper, elect either of the shoes, and hold the power of Dorothy’s silver slippers or ruby shoes?

“All you have to do is to knock the heels together three times and command the shoes to carry you wherever you wish to go.”

What happens if we choose a different pair of shoes within the same structure of representative democracy?

“All you have to do is to knock the heels together three times and command the shoes to carry you wherever you wish to go.”

If we continue to follow the same cycle, we will only ever achieve the same result. And politics unfortunately doesn’t do magic. The ability to transform life lies within each and every one of us as human agents and sovereign beings. We are the agents of change. That’s where the real power and magic lies. And that’s why it’s so greatly dismissed and feared. It’s the power of the people. People power.

And in our agency and sovereignty:

We all hold the power to break this cycle.

We all hold the power to create a new and improved participatory/direct democracy and have a real say. Invest your time in evaluating alternative systems like those proposed by the grassroots people-based initiative 1Yi, or parties such as Direct Democracy/NCM, UnitedPeople or IDP. Envision what it is to be empowered. Because as a collective under these alternative structures:

We all hold the power to bring YOU into the legislative and decision-making process.

How?

Think. Join the collective. Demand your say. Choose wisely. Chop the head off the guillotine. Break the cycle. And then vote for structural significant change. Remember, we only have a few more weeks before our opportunity goes for another five years. And above all else, it’s not rocket science.