So finally, the Dáil many said would not last a year has been dissolved as it approaches its fourth anniversary.
The Government that it produced was a unique political experiment. Fine Gael received just 25.5% of the popular vote in 2016 but formed the Government, joined by a few independents and kept in office only with the support of Fianna Fáil which had received 24.3% of the vote. Inherently unstable, it has remained in office for longer than anyone expected.
Now, polls show Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil neck and neck once more. But there have been shifts in political support: For example, there has been a significant shrinkage in the independent vote. So, while the relative parity between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael points to another minority Government, the likely reduction in the number of seats held by independents offsets that somewhat. The larger parties should therefore win more seats between them than they did in 2016.
A major talking point in recent months has been the expected performance of the Green Party. Talk of a Green surge seems to be exaggerated, and arises from the extensive coverage given to an exit poll after last May’s local and European elections, which was discussed as fact for a day or two before the actual results came in. That exit poll gave the Green Party 9%, although in reality they won 5.5%, less than Labour. In recent polls the Green Party is level with Labour on a modest 6%. A lot can and does happen during a campaign, but it is very early to accept the common wisdom predicting a big Green breakthrough.
Once the Dáil was dissolved yesterday (Tuesday January 14th), all legislation before it went back to square one. Bills which have slowly made their way through the legislature over many months or sometimes years were simply wiped off the agenda. If anyone in the next Dáil wants to put them back on the agenda they have to start again, reintroduce them and guide them once more through every parliamentary stage.
Some of these Bills have no doubt died permanently. We don’t know the composition of the next Dáil, but we do know that after the election it will be different. We won’t know how different it will be until after February 8th.
For example, there are Opposition Bills that disconcerted people in the property sector, such as ones proposing a rent freeze and various restrictions on property investors, which have been live in the Dáil for some months. These have now fallen. They only got through various parliamentary stages because the Government was dependent on Opposition votes for survival, and so had to humour them. The next Government may have no such constraint, in which case we will not be seeing any such Bills progress in the future.
Perhaps the longest lasting Bill in the Dáil which has just been dissolved was the one to reform the way judges are appointed. Championed to the point of obsession by Shane Ross, this too falls, and will only be revived if a future Government is dependent on Mr Ross for support.
A separate category of legislation is that which has been promised, or which has been drafted in outline, but not yet brought before the Oireachtas. The highest profile such legislation is the Climate Action Bill which was to be published within weeks. This was to set a national carbon budget, give each Minister specific targets for his or her department, and make each Minister responsible for meeting these targets. The next Government will no doubt produce and ultimately have enacted a similar piece of legislation, but we must await the composition of that next Government before knowing what measures will be involved.
A Saturday election will be a novelty. In 2012 the Government experimented with Saturday voting by holding a referendum (on children’s rights) on a Saturday. The unimpressive 33.5% turnout did not amount to a ringing endorsement of the decision. In theory, many young people who study and work in one place and travel home for the weekend will find it easier to cast their vote on a Saturday.
The Taoiseach’s decision may not have been based entirely on civic-mindedness. Exit polls after last year’s local and European elections showed Fianna Fáil particularly weak in the 18-24 age group winning just 14% of the vote compared to Fine Gael’s 23%. The choice of Saturday will mean more of these young people will be voting. It might be cynical, though, to think this had influenced the Taoiseach’s decision.
Mark Brennock is Director of Public Affairs at Murray
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