The Oireachtas, or parliament, in Ireland comprises:
- The Dáil, its lower house;
- The Seanad, its upper house; and
- The President.
Many people refer to all of this as ‘the Dáil’, but this is misleading, even if the Dáil is the most important part. The role of each is set down the Constitution, introduced in 1937, which lays down the authority of the different parts of the Oireachtas and the balance of powers between them.
The Dáil has 166 deputies or TDs (Teachta Dala), elected in a general election which must take place every five years. The first Dáil dates to 1919 and the present one is the 31st Dáil. The prime functions of the Dáil are to elect a government and Taoiseach (prime minister), pass the budget, enact legislation and provide a form of accountability of government to the people. The Dáil must sit in Dublin and is located in Leinster House, Kildare Street, Dublin. Its sessions are open to the press and (with a ticket from a TD), members of the public. Its sessions are chaired by a Ceann Comhairle, Leas Ceann Comhairle and by other deputies agreeable to do so drawn from a panel. The party representation at the start of the 31st Dáil was: Fine Gael, 76; Labour, 37; Fianna Fail, 20; Sinn Fein, 14; United Left Alliance, 5; independents and others, 14.
The upper house of the Oireachtas is the Seanad. A new Seanad is elected soon after each Dáil election is completed and the present one, the 24th Seanad, was elected in 2011. The Seanad has 60 members, 11 of whom are appointed by the Taoiseach, 6 are elected by university graduates (three each for Dublin University and the National University of Ireland) and 37 elected on a complicated system of panels, the voters being local authority councillors. The Seanad is less powerful than the Dáil: senators may not amend the budget, introduce a constitutional amendment or change a money Bill, nor does it have a system of asking parliamentary questions. Despite that, its importance is often under-estimated and in other respects its powers are similar: legislation approved by the Dáil must also be debated and approved by the Seanad. The party representation at the start of the 24th Seanad was Fine Gael, 19; Fianna Fail, 14; Labour, 12; Sinn Fein, 3; independents, 12. It is chaired by a Cathaoirleach, Leas Cathaoirleach, or other senators agreeable to do so drawn from a panel.
The Seanad is considered to play an important role as a forum for raising and exploring social and other issues. Many important social reforms were introduced there. Under §18 of the constitution, it is required to include people with knowledge and practical experience of social services, including voluntary social services. The government elected in 2011 pledged to abolish the Seanad and put such a proposal to the people within a year.
Every single word that every member says is written down and formally becomes part of the parliamentary record (see [embedded link] How the Oireachtas records its work). If a member of the Oireachtas dies or resigns, there is no system of substitutes and a by-election must be held. The courts require that this be held within a reasonable period, a year being indicative.
The third house of the Oireachtas is the President. In addition to important ceremonial and representational functions, the presidency can have an important role in shaping public opinion and articulating popular concerns. The actual parliamentary powers of the President are limited.
A President may:
- Refer a Bill passed by the Oireachtas to the Supreme Court to test its constitutionality;
- Refer a Bill to the people for referendum, following petition by a majority of the Seanad and a third of the Dáil;
- Address the Oireachtas on a matter of national concern;
- Refuse a dissolution of the Dáil, asking a divided Dáil to try again to find a new Taoiseach.
To be elected, a President must be nominated by at least 20 members or by at least four county councils, or an outgoing President may nominate herself or himself, but only once. If there is more than one nomination, then all citizens vote in a presidential election. There is no provision in Ireland for a vice-president and when there is a vacancy (e.g. death or resignation of the president), presidential powers are exercised, until a fresh election is concluded, by a commission consisting of the Chief Justice and the speakers of the other two houses – the Ceann Comhairle of the Dáil and the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad. Term of office is seven years.
Council of State
Although it is not formally a house of the Oireachtas, the other state institution is the Council of State. This comprises the Taoiseach, Tánaiste, Chief Justice, President of the High Court, Ceann Comhairle, Cathaoirleach, Attorney General, former Presidents, former Taoisigh, former Chief Justices and seven persons appointed by the President. The President may convene the Council for advice and must convene it before deciding to refer a Bill to the Supreme Court.