Both houses make provision for debates on issues of current concern. There are several ways this is done. First, at the very start of the day, a single member may ask for the house to be adjourned to debate a matter of ‘urgent national importance’. Doing so is at the discretion of the Ceann Comhairle or the Cathaoirleach and is normally refused: however, the member concerned may get some favourable publicity for having tried to do so. More likely to succeed is a procedure called private notice questions. The purpose of this procedure is to facilitate a debate on a prominent, urgent matter of national concern raised by several deputies and which could not be otherwise speedily debated or discussed. Such notices must be lodged on the day of the intended debate. Accepting private notice questions is at the discretion of the Ceann Comhairle. There may be none for weeks and then several. When one is allowed, the minister responds and a short debate follows (about half an hour).
Second, the government may propose that time be set aside for discussion on a contemporary topic. On the order paper, these are normally termed ‘statements’ in which the minister whose subject area is covered introduces a debate, whereupon opposition speakers and other deputies respond. These tend to be less contentious areas of policy in which there is genuine all-party concern, sometimes international issues and where there is no formal motion for agreement or disagreement, but they can also be on issues on which the government is under extreme pressure and where refusal to permit any debate would give it unfavourable media and public comment. They can also be used when the government has an important announcement to make (e.g. jobs initiative, 2011).
Third, motions may be put down for a formal debate in ‘private member’s time’. The time for such debates is allocated between the different party blocks. Private member’s time is generally allocated for a three hours twice a week, normally on succeeding days. Each party normally gets a block of time every two or three months. Within each party, many individual members may want their favourite subject to be discussed and some have to wait patiently a long time until their turn comes up. The actual decision on which motion to take will depend, within each block, on when the motion was put in, whose turn is due and, in the case of party blocks, the view of the party whip and leadership as to which motion can best be pursued to political advantage at a particular time. Debates are not a priority in the Dáil or Seanad’s work, but they can be an important way whereby issues and problems may be articulated. Some debate motions, though, can remain on the order paper for years before they are reached.
What type of motion is debated? As a general statement, government parties tend to put down motions congratulating the government on its performance; opposition parties use debating time to raise issues which concern them. Naturally, they tend to be more critical. A vote is normally taken at the end of each such debate (unsurprisingly, the government normally wins). At first sight, such debates may seem to be a futile exercise. However, well-presented opposition motions, especially if given press coverage, can put ministers under a lot of pressure. Government deputies may express their sympathy for some of the criticisms made by the opposition. The minister must respond to criticism and can be often pressured into giving commitments for improvements.
What is called the ‘adjournment debate’ takes place at the end of each daily session of the Dáil and Seanad. Here, any deputy or senator may put down a motion for an issue of public administration, rather than policy, to be discussed. Normally the motion begins The need for the Minister for X to ensure that…. The norm is for up to four such motions to be taken each day in the Dáil and three in the Seanad. If a motion is accepted (the ruling is made by Ceann Comhairle or in the Seanad by the Cathaoirleach), then the member has five minutes or so to make the case. The minister must then respond, though there is no subsequent exchange of views (a rule that is sometimes broken). Adjournment debates are an effective means of keeping the pressure up on ministers and their departments on a given issue, obtaining commitments and getting issues put on the record. They are not always an effective means of getting media publicity, because they often take place late at night when the media have gone home. On the other hand, because adjournment debates are taken once the other debates have ended and often late at night, they can be an irritant for ministers and civil servants who have to wait around patiently until other debates are concluded. Motions for the adjournment must be submitted by noon that day, which enables moderately urgent issues to be raised speedily. In the case of a Seanad adjournment debate, the Dáil minister attend there to answer to a motion presented there.
Adjournment debates are under-used by voluntary and community organisations. It has been known for the Seanad to adjourn without an adjournment debate – simply because no one asked a senator on that day to raise an issue of public concern. Voluntary organisations that ask deputies or senators to raise issues on the adjournment must be prepared to brief their member thoroughly with reliable information. They will probably wish to attend on the evening in question, in which case they need a ticket from their member (two tickets are normally allocated, more on a quiet day).
One feature of the work of the Oireachtas is that senior civil servants often attend, especially during question time, to assist ministers in their replies and contributions. They sit close to but not in the area for deputies or senators and may ‘whisper in the minister’s ear’ to advise or pass notes to assist the minister in an answer. For the organisation raising the issue, it means that it is reaching not only the minister but his senior civil servants.