Political Institutions

The Government and the Oireachtas in European Affairs

In the early years of Irish membership, the public policy implications of accession were narrowly defined, and it seems clear that politicians underestimated how Europe would help transform the Irish political landscape. The ‘Europeanisation’ thesis suggests that the EU policy process produces “ways of doing things” which are first defined in Brussels and then incorporated in national systems of law and politics. No major policy is now developed in any member state without taking account of the EU dimension during the national decision making process. Europeanisation then emerges as the key mechanism of transformation which drives economic, social and political change in each member state. Europeanisation also seems to significantly weaken the ability of national parliaments to participate in the policy process.

The Irish case seems to wholly confirm these findings: Europeanisation of public policy, has led to a strengthening of the power of government and a reduced role for the Oireachtas in decision-making. European policy in Ireland has been managed by what has been termed the ‘holy trinity’ of Irish Government – the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of Finance and the Department of An Taoiseach. From the earliest days of membership the day-to-day business of managing Ireland’s relations with Brussels fell to Foreign Affairs, which relied to a great extent on the Irish Permanent Representation (Embassy) in Brussels. Over time we have seen a subtle re-balancing of responsibilities between Foreign Affairs and Finance, which, from the beginning of formal statehood in 1922, had been the pre-eminent government department. More recently the Department of An Taoiseach has taken on a much more prominent role, confirmed by the transfer of administrative responsibility for European affairs to that department in June 2011. Senior politicians and civil servants participate in European affairs to such a significant degree that they spend as much time focusing on EU matters as they do on purely domestic issues. The Taoiseach regularly meets EU heads of state and government who visit Ireland, and he or she will thus enjoy considerable contact with their counterparts in other countries, and quite intense interaction with them through European Council summit meetings.

Ireland has one of the most highly centralized political systems in Europe characterised by strong central executive control, a subordinate parliament and extremely weak structures of local government. Indeed the level of control wielded by the executive ‘is practically unrivalled anywhere else in Europe’. Michael Gallagher notes that, with regard to the Dáil, ‘it was only a slight exaggeration to say that all legislation passed by the Dáil emanates from the government, and that all legislation proposed by the government is passed by the Dáil’. He goes on to describe Dáil debates as ‘dialogues of the deaf’, with little incentive for opposition parties to engage constructively, and he concludes that the ‘Dáil cannot be seen as an active participant in the process of making laws, let alone broader policy’. Within the committee system of the Oireachtas, the government effectively dominates decision-making through the appointment of chairs and manipulation of the rules of procedure: the executive holds a ‘lock’ over the nature and content of both legislation and scrutiny, and exploits every opportunity to consolidate its advantages over parliament. The clienialistic nature of the Irish political system also plays a role here. Mainstream political representatives remain attached to a robustly localist political culture and TDs have both little opportunity to influence EU policy-making and little to gain from engaging seriously with EU affairs. Members of the Oireachtas often appear distinctly uncomfortable when discussing EU issues, reflecting both their localist orientation and an ignorance of how decisions are made in Brussels. Given the vastly increased scope of EU legislation and the ‘migration’ of many policy areas to the EU level since the introduction of the Single Market programme in the 1980s it would seem imperative to have the Oireachtas closely involved in EU decision-making or at least seeking to hold government to account. In practice, however, the Oireachtas defers to executive privilege and European affairs remains the preserve of a narrowly-concentrated stratum of Irish officials and policy-makers.


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