The work of the Oireachtas is most visible when it is in session, normally about a hundred days a year. The Dáil and Seanad are generally in session from:
- End January to end March
- End April to end June
- Late September to mid-December
Except in emergencies, neither house sits weekends nor Mondays. Sitting hours are normally 2:30pm till late (Tuesday); 10:30am till late (Wednesday) and 10:30am to 5pm on Thursday. The Dáil may work till 8pm or 9pm, sometimes even into the early hours. The theory behind these hours is that this is the best way to facilitate members who travel from distant locations, but it has often been criticized as being unsuitable for members with family commitments and there has been much discussion about more normal workday hours. Friday sittings are infrequent and there is no question time that day. Members normally undertake constituency work on Friday, weekends and Mondays.
The business of the houses is determined by the government, which proposes an ‘order of business’ each day. Normally, the government chief whip (a member appointed to handle parliamentary business and to ensure party members stay in line, hence the term ‘whip’) negotiates the order of business with opposition parties, each of whom has a whip. The aim of these weekly discussions is to ensure both that government business is dealt with and that the opposition parties have their chance to have their say. If the government proposes controversial business, or the opposition does not feel it is being given a fair opportunity, then the order of business will be contested, leading to a vote. So each day, the government presents its order of business to the house (in the Dáil, the Taoiseach; in the Seanad, the Leader of the House). This normally takes the form of a printed order paper (Clár), green for the Dáil and yellow for the Seanad, numbering each issue the government wishes to discuss that day. Sometimes the government will limit debate on a particular issue, imposing a time limit on debate. This is called the ‘guillotine’ and is normally stoutly resisted by the opposition. The order of business is normally discussed by the whips a week ahead and there is no system for setting down discussion on a particular Bill in a particular month, which makes it difficult for lobbying bodies to know when a particular item will come up.
The normally running order is:
1. Order of business
3. Question time (see Parliamentary Questions )
4. Legislation (see Introducing and amending legislation)
5. Debates, motions and other issues
6. Adjournment debate (see Debates and adjournment debates )
This timetable is punctuated by such business as approving treaties, selecting delegates for international missions or organisations, appointing tribunals, receiving foreign dignitaries, debating the most recent European summit or taking reports from ministers on current issues.
Television viewers are often surprised at the small number of members in the chamber of the house at any one time. In reality, much of the work of the Oireachtas goes on outside the Dáil chamber or the Seanad room. Deputies and senators spend much of their daytime in their offices dealing with their constituents through letter, e-mail, or by meeting them in Leinster House and making follow-up enquiries for them. This routine work can assume a large portion of the day, but providing quality constituency service is one of the main functions of a deputy or senator and crucial for re-election. Another important task is to attend Oireachtas committees. Members who belong to a party, as most do, will also have a parliamentary party meeting, normally each week, to discuss party issues and agree policy positions. In the evenings, Dublin and near-Dublin deputies and senators will go to meetings in their constituencies – residents’ associations, party branches or other important local events. Most hold clinics in their constituencies – set times each week, such as Saturday morning – when constituents may meet them to discuss their issues and concerns. Traditionally, these were upstairs rooms over pubs but more recently rooms in hotels, operating on a first-come, first-served basis, but some members will offer an appointment, through the constituency office, for a particular time. Some have a dedicated main street shop front constituency office.