Although working with the political system is never easy, the Irish political system is one of the most permeable and accessible. Compared to other countries, it is relatively straightforward to meet with or correspond directly with members of parliament. This is a function of the size of the country and especially our competitive voting system. Members who do not provide a good constituency service – which includes accessibility – do not get re-elected.
Before approaching members of the Oireachtas, voluntary groups and community organisations must therefore give some attention to what they actually want them to do. Neither Dáil deputies nor senators can change the world overnight, but they can do specific things, like:
- Ask a parliamentary questions (see Parliamentary questions );
- Present a motion for debate (see Debates and adjournment debates);
- Write a letter on the group’s behalf;
- Arrange a meeting with a minister, minister of state, or state agency;
- Help them get access to an Oireachtas committee (see Oireachtas committees );
- Suggest people who the group should contact. Members know hundreds, if not thousands of people, in government departments, state agencies, the media;
- Advise on how they should pursue their campaign – after all, they are campaigners themselves.
Those groups which work best with Oireachtas members are those which build up a long-term relationship over time, meeting them at relatively regular intervals. Repeated questions, adjournment debates and motions can produce an impact over time. Although such work is tedious, it is often the most effective way in which members of the Oireachtas can help in the long run. Sometimes these members win promotion and become ministers, a friend in a position of policy influence.
Identifying members of the Dáil, Seanad
Sometimes the first task of a group is to find out who is their public representative. For the Dáil, the country is divided into 42 constituencies, each with three, four or five deputies. Outside Dublin and Cork, constituencies generally follow county boundaries, though some counties may be grouped together. The names of each deputy are listed on the Oireachtas website (www.oireachtas.ie) and in the Institute of Public Administration Yearbook (to order, www.ipa.ie). More simply, one may contact Leinster House (01- 618 3166) and ask. Then it is important to decide which one to approach, or all of them for the constituency. For the sake of neutrality, most community organisations approach each of their deputies, partly to see who can be the most effective but also to prevent the issue being cornered by one political party or individual rather than another. Most deputies do not take offence at their fellow members being approached – there is little they can do about it anyway – and most expect groups to seek the support of all the political parties on a given issue. Organisations that have gone to the trouble of personally meeting a large number of members often find that this pays off when the issue which concerns them comes up – and a large number of knowledgeable deputies or senators rise to support them.
Identifying a senator to support one’s cause presents a different set of problems, since senators have a different set of constituencies. The obvious approach is to ask the appropriate party spokesperson in the senate on the particular issue. University graduates have clearly identifiable representatives, though in practice many people approach the university senators even though they have no connection to the colleges in question. A more practical approach is to find out which individual senators are interested in the issue in question, or to locate one who lives nearest to the group in question (there are proportionately more senators for the rural areas). Many senators are aspiring candidates for the Dáil and are active in local politics, so this should not present a difficulty.
Meeting deputies, senators
There are several places where voluntary or community organisations can meet with their deputy (or senator). In Dublin, organisations may find it easier to arrange a meeting in Leinster House. Once the time is set up, the group should present itself at the front gate of Leinster House where it will be assigned to a waiting room until the deputy is ready. Meetings can be quite short, especially on a busy day, so it is important to be able to get information and points across swiftly, almost like in a radio interview. Outside Dublin, it may be easier to meet the member locally by contacting the constituency office or arranging a meeting in a clinic (see How members work ). This would probably be on a Monday or Friday as the member will be in Dublin the intervening days. The more precise a group can be about what it wants the member to do (see list above), the better, especially if accompanied by the ability to supply good information to support the case. A single-page summary is often helpful.
A small point to notice is that it is possible to call at the gate of Leinster House and leave in a letter for each deputy in one’s constituency, but that is the maximum: the gate will not accept bagfuls of mail beyond that.