Let down by a flawed parliament The Irish Times Tuesday May 8th 2007
What, exactly, are we electing on May 24th? A government, of course, though none of us can be sure how our vote will translate into post-election deal-making.
The era of coalition politics has broken the direct link between the ballot box and the cabinet room. Parties can take a drubbing from the voters and still end up in government, as Fianna Fáil did in 1992.
Voters can opt for one party on the assumption that it will coalesce with another party and find that the outcome is entirely different. Small parties or even individual TDs with negligible national support can end up with a massively disproportionate influence.
So what we're really electing is a parliament. If democracy is to function, we need to know that legislators will do their jobs, that TDs will have enough self-respect to carry out at least their basic constitutional functions.
Unfortunately, voters can't even be sure of this. If proof were needed that we have a chronically dysfunctional parliament, it appeared in the High Court last week in the shameful spectacle of a bunch of middle-aged men arguing over the body of a 17-year-old girl pregnant with a foetus that cannot survive outside the womb. The case is grotesque on many levels, and one of them is the way our legislators have knowingly, consciously and deliberately refused to enact laws that the courts have found to be a constitutional necessity.
Almost 15 years ago, the then government press secretary, Seán Duignan, wrote in his diary about the defeat in a referendum of a proposed amendment to the constitutional provisions on abortion. Albert Reynolds's government had put forward a somewhat bizarre proposal to reverse the Supreme Court's judgment in the notorious X case.
It was too restrictive for liberals and not restrictive enough for the Catholic right and was soundly defeated. Duignan noted: "Substantive abortion amendment banjaxed by two to one margin . . . [Pádraig] Flynn says it means legislation required to bring in some form of limited abortion. Now, that's one for the méar fada!"
It would be hard to find a better summary in two sentences of the self-contempt of our legislators. It is recognised that a law is required but also perfectly understood that there is only one place for it: the méar fada - the long finger.
Fast forward almost a decade, to the launch of another campaign for another referendum intended to roll back the X case, this time by Bertie Ahern in February 2002. The Taoiseach talked about the need to strike a balance on the issue and suggested that "The proper place to strike that complex balance is in legislation - not in the Constitution . . . As the late Mr Justice Niall McCarthy stated in 1992: 'In the context of the eight years that have passed since the [1983 anti-abortion] amendment, the failure by the legislature to enact the appropriate legislation is no longer just unfortunate; it is inexcusable.' Nine years later, that remark has still greater force. That is why this Government has put so much emphasis on facing up to the issue and on creating the correct context for a legislative response."
He made it clear that if his proposed amendment was defeated, he would legislate for the X case judgment. When his proposal was indeed defeated, Bertie Ahern accepted that the next government would have to bring in legislation: "It will be the work of the next government to study and understand the results and implications of this referendum, and to act upon it. And above all, in doing so, the will of the sovereign people as expressed at the ballot box should be respected."
Twice in the last 15 years, the people have expressed their sovereign will by rejecting attempts to roll back the X case judgment. Twice they have done so on the basis of statements by taoisigh that, if their proposals were rejected, they would introduce legislation. Five years ago, the Taoiseach told us that the failure to legislate was even more inexcusable than it had been 10 years previously. But there has no been no legislation.
And here's the really depressing news. There will be no legislation if Enda Kenny becomes taoiseach either. The Fine Gael leader last month gave a commitment to the Irish Catholic newspaper that as taoiseach he would not legislate for the X case judgment. Labour is committed to doing so, and the parties have no agreed position, but it is hard to see how Enda Kenny could break such an unequivocal promise.
The electorate is thus faced with a choice between two taoisigh, one who is consciously guilty of an "inexcusable" failure, and the other who has explicitly assured us that he will, to borrow a phrase from Samuel Beckett, "fail again, fail better".
When the executive is so flagrantly unwilling to do its job, it is supposed to be the job of the Dáil to step in and make it do so. But ours is, historically, one of the weakest parliaments in the developed world. We could begin to change that. If we can't elect a government with the guts to do its job, we can at least elect TDs with the gumption and self-respect to do theirs