What the Oireachtas does

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The Oireachtas:

  • Elects a government;
  • Approves and passes the annual budget;
  • Approves and passes legislation;
  • Provides a channel of accountability of government to the people.

Electing a government

The first function of a new Dáil is to elect a government.  Each party, or, more likely, each group of parties puts forward a candidate to be Taoiseach and the candidate with a majority is then appointed by the President.  The Taoiseach then names a team of senior ministers (up to 15), who, once approved by the Dáil are then appointed by the President.  This is quickly followed by Ministers of State (sometimes called ‘junior ministers’) now 15 in number.  Ministers must be members of the Oireachtas (Dáil or Seanad).  Governments may last a full five years, although it is not unusual for the Taoiseach to change ministers from time to time, a process sometimes referred to as ‘a re-shuffle’.  It is possible, but unusual, for the government to change without a general election if the government loses its majority in the Dáil and enough members change sides (this happened in January 1995).  The Taoiseach has the prerogative to ask the President for a dissolution.   If the government loses a motion of censure, it must resign and a general election normally follows (this happened in October 1982). Alternately, a minor party may leave a coalition government, obliging the governing party to call an election (this happened in 1987 and 2011).

From the point of view of policy, each government is guided by its party manifesto and its programme for government.  Before an election, each party issues its manifesto: what each party says it will do.  After an election, the parties that enter government negotiate, generally over one or several weeks, a Programme for Government (PfG): what the parties will do together.  Newly elected governments pursue a mixture of their own new policies and the less controversial ones of their predecessors.

Budget

The prime task of any government is to pass its programme of public spending and taxation, for without this the country cannot function. During the spring, each government department prepares estimates of the activities, projects and spending it would like to carry out in the following year.  There is then a period of lengthy negotiation over the summer and autumn with the Department of Finance, which scrutinizes each departmental programme carefully and normally tries to hold spending down.  The outcome is confirmed by the cabinet, which resolves any final areas of disagreements between departments. The Minister for Finance prepares the formal budget day statement, normally in early December, outlining how the government plans to get money in so as to meet these estimates. The budget is approved by the Dáil in stages, the immediate tax measures the same day, the general provisions next.   If the government has a good majority, approval of the budget is normally a formality, but if it fails, one may expect a general election to be called (this happened in January 1982).  The Seanad may not reject the budget, but may send a ‘recommendation’ to the Minister for Finance. The government may also introduce emergency budgets (e.g. April 2009).

The estimates of spending are published at the same time and are formally called ‘the estimates’.  They are normally divided between the largest part, current spending (day-to-day expenses) and capital spending (e.g. new buildings, hospitals etc).  The amounts are listed under about 50 main headings or ‘votes’ which coincide with the main spending programmes of government departments and state agencies.  The estimates are published by the Department of Finance.  Helpfully, each heading gives the amount for the previous year, with the percentage difference. Visit the Department of Finance website.

The general and specific measures of the budget are implemented in a Finance Bill and the social welfare measures in a separate Social Welfare Bill (these routinely include details not announced in the budget speech).  The debate on the budget provides the opportunity for the members to comment on all aspects of economic policy and both the Finance Bill and the Social Welfare Bill provide opportunities for groups to lobby again on the details of changes in budgetary policy and the estimates.

Legislation

The next most important function of the Oireachtas is to pass legislation, or laws.  The law is constantly in need of improvement and reform and Ireland’s international obligations (e.g. European Union) often require changes to our domestic law.  New institutions generally require new laws to establish them and government decisions may, at short notice, need enabling authority which requires a new law.  The Oireachtas may pass between 30 and 50 Bills a year which, once enacted, are called Acts.  Most legislation is uncontroversial.  Bills generally require several years of preparation and some may take several years to pass, but governments can and will sometimes pass legislation in emergency at very short notice (see Introducing and amending legislation). Legislation is guided through by a minister, who presents it not only to the Dáil but also to the Seanad.

Accountability

An important function of the Oireachtas is accountability of government to the people.  This is done formally through debates, parliamentary questions and adjournment debates. It may also be done when the Taoiseach, Tánaiste, or a minister makes an important announcement and time is normally then set aside for members of the opposition to comment and questions.

The system of government ministers is mirrored on the opposition side.  Each opposition party will appoint a ‘front bench spokespersons’ (so-called because they sit on the front seats in their party’s place in the Dáil and Seanad) to follow the work of individual ministers and cross-examine them.  If there are several parties in opposition, then one government minister may have several opposition shadows.  A party member who has no assigned responsibility either as a minister on the government side, or as a front-bench spokesperson on the opposition side, is called a ‘backbencher’ and sits on the back benches.  Seating in both houses is semi-circular, with blocks for each parties, but no seats are assigned or formally named for individual members, although in practice many members often sit in the same seat. Read more here.