Political system at national level

Introduction

The Constitution is the fundamental legal document that sets down how Ireland should be governed. It establishes the Head of State, branches of government, the courts and it also sets out how those institutions should be run. The Constitution has another important function; it describes the fundamental rights that every Irish citizen is entitled to.

The Oireachtas (the Irish Parliament)

The Dáil and Seanad (Senate) are collectively known as the Houses of the Oireachtas. The Government is chosen by and is collectively responsible to the Dáil. There must be a minimum of 7 and a maximum of 15 Ministers. The Taoiseach, the Tanaiste and the Minister for Finance must be members of the Dáil. It is possible to have 2 Ministers who are members of the Senate but this rarely happens.

The Government's main functions are to propose legislation, manage the public finances and administer the government departments.

The Government is responsible to the Dáil. It is not responsible to the Senate. However, Ministers have a right to attend the Senate and it is normal practice for the relevant Minister or Minister of State to be present when the House is dealing with their areas of responsibility.

Committees

Much of the work of the Dáil and Senate is now done in Committees. Each House may form Committees for particular purposes. Select Committees have the power to take oral and written evidence and seek documents. Joint Committees are Select Committees of each House sitting and voting together. Special Committees do not have the same powers as Select Committees.

In general, Committees deal with Estimates of Expenditure, Committee Stages of Bills relevant to their terms of reference and related reports. It is common for Committees to invite voluntary and community organisations and/ or experts to make submissions to them on various issues and it is also common for such organisations to ask to make a submission.

Controlling the public finances

Each year, the Government prepares the Estimates of the Receipts and Expenditure of the State. This is an outline of the costs of running each Department and Office of State. The Estimates are published before the annual Budget. The Dáil and the relevant Committees debate the Estimates in detail. The Estimates are passed by the Dáil and are given statutory effect by the Appropriation Act. The Budget is given immediate legal effect by financial resolutions of the Dáil on the evening of the Budget speech. The Finance Act must be passed within 4 months of the Budget.

At present, budgeting is on an annual basis. Proposals for multi-annual budgets are being considered. You can view the full text of Ireland's Budget here.

The Comptroller and Auditor General is appointed under the Constitution to control on behalf of the State all disbursements and to audit all accounts of moneys administered by or under the authority of the Oireachtas. The Comptroller's functions are set out in legislation.

Legislation

It is almost always the Government of the day that propose new laws. A Minister presents a Bill to the Dáil or Seanad for discussion and decision. A Bill is proposed legislation - after it is passed and signed by the President, it is called an Act. Occasionally, a TD or Senator presents what is called a Private Member's Bill. It is very rare for such a Bill to get beyond the first stage - the reasons for this are political rather than legal. However, some important legislation in recent years has resulted from Private Members' Bills - notably The Judicial Separation and Family Law Reform Act 1989. The procedure is the same whether the Bill is proposed by the Government or by a Member.

Usually, a Bill is presented by a Minister to the Dáil. Occasionally the process is started in the Seanad but any Bills dealing with taxation or related matters must start in the Dáil. Each Bill has to go through a number of stages or readings. It can be defeated at any of these stages and, if this happens in the Dáil, the process ends there. The Seanad can only obstruct a Bill. In practice, Government Bills are not often defeated. You can view all Irish legislation 1922 to date here.

The stages

The first stage or reading just involves presenting the title of the Bill to the Dáil (or Seanad). In effect, that just allows the Bill to be printed. The Bill is then circulated to all TDs (or Senators) and there is a second reading. At this second stage the Minister who is presenting the Bill explains what it is all about. The next stage is called the Committee stage. The Bill is analysed in detail at this stage and amendments may be put down either by the Government or the Opposition. The fourth stage - sometimes called the report stage - involves an overall discussion and again, amendments may be put down and voted upon. The next stage involves sending the Bill to the other House (the Seanad usually) where a similar procedure is followed.

The Seanad cannot amend or defeat a money Bill. It can amend and delay other Bills.

When the Bill is passed by both the Dáil and Seanad it is sent to the President for signature. The Bill is now an Act. It may become law immediately after the President signs or there may be a clause or clauses in it which specify when it will come into effect.

Subordinate legislation

Subordinate legislation is a lesser form of legislation than Acts. The most common is a Statutory Instrument (SI). There must be specific power laid down in an Act in order to allow a Statutory Instrument to be effective. Usually an Act authorises a Minister to make Regulations dealing with details. The Act itself sets out the general law. The Statutory Instrument cannot deviate in any way from what is laid down in the Act - if they do, they are what is called ultra vires. That means "beyond the powers" - that is, the Minister does not have the power to do what he is purporting to do.

Statutory Instruments do not usually have to be passed by the Oireachtas. Apart from Ministers, certain other bodies, mainly regulatory bodies, have the power to make subordinate legislation, for example, the Commission for Telecommunications Regulation (ComReg) and the Incorporated Law Society.

The role of Ministers

Under the Constitution, Departments of State are administered by members of the Government (Ministers) and the Minister is in charge of the Department. This means that final responsibility rests with the Minister but many of the functions of the Department and responsibility for various actions are assigned to civil servants.

Policy making

Green Papers, White Papers and discussion documents

A Green Paper is a discussion document, usually written by civil servants, in which an issue is outlined, various options are suggested and the advantages and disadvantages of those options may be set out. Generally, the public is asked for submissions on the options proposed. After this process is complete, a White Paper is drawn up - this sets out the Government's policy on the issue and what it intends to do. The proposals in the White Paper are then implemented.

Sometimes this process occurs but the titles Green and White Papers are not used; they are called discussion documents or something similar. Sometimes a White Paper is published without a preceding Green Paper. Sometimes the process is carried through and then nothing happens after the White Paper is published. Sometimes papers are published which have the same effect as a White Paper but are called strategy documents or similar. The actual public consultation process varies as well.

Page edited: 1 November 2016