Dail representation: an old chestnut still roasting….

Gerry Adams keeps the flame lit under his party’s long term campaign to have Northern Irish representatives sitting in the Republic’s legislature. As Adams points out, it has effectively been kicked into the long grass by Bertie Ahern in the face of opposition from all other party leaders, bar Sinn Fein. Opposition to full Northern Irish representation has been consistent and residual within the Dail since the Seventh Progress Report of the All Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution. It rejected full participation in 2002:

The committee fears that the inclusion on equal terms of Northern representatives in the Dáil could be interpreted as a refusal on our part to accept the implications of the careful balance on constitutional issues achieved in the Good Friday Agreement. This would damage the prospect of durable crosscommunity support for the Agreement, and put at risk the enormous gains made in the Agreement. If the highest current national priority in relation to Northern Ireland remains the successful implementation and operation of the Agreement, as we believe it should, then it would be imprudent to contemplate such a step.

Thirdly, the committee believes that a constitutional amendment would be required to confer an unlimited right of audience on any person who is not elected to Dáil Éíreann.

The committee however did allow for the possibility of softer rights:

The committee acknowledges that the immediate emphasis of the Sinn Féin submission, in particular, is on the possibility that Northern Ireland Westminster MPs might have a limited right of audience within the Dáil. This would not require a constitutional amendment, and might technically be effected through the Dáil periodically forming itself into a Committee of the Whole House for the purposes of selected debates, most obviously for instance on Northern Ireland matters and on the operation of the Good Friday Agreement.

The frequency and organisation of such debates could easily be altered – as no constitutional amendment is required – over time, in the light of experience. We accept that any addition to the Dáil of participants, even if temporary and nonvoting, other than those elected from 51 constituencies within this state, could be held to be inconsistent with the thrust of our approach.

We also accept that any participation in the Dáil by Northern representatives might potentially run the risk of opening up basic constitutional issues settled in the Good Friday Agreement. However, we think that in this case those risks are relatively mild and should be kept in perspective.

The expertise and experience upon which Northern MPs could draw could certainly enhance the quality of certain important Dáil debates. Such an initiative would be strongly welcomed by certain Northern representatives and their supporters, and would address the continuing desire of many nationalists for further concrete expression of their Irish identity and their membership of the wider national family.

The Dáil could consider taking the necessary procedural steps to allow MPs elected for Northern Ireland constituencies to speak in periodic debates on Northern Ireland matters and on the operation of the Good Friday Agreement. The committee is of the view that any such participation should take place on a crosscommunity basis with parity of esteem for the different communities in Northern Ireland [my italics].

Ahern responded to a question, with a proposal to explore the Committee’s recommendations and initiate a wider consultation on the issue.

In the end it was rejected. The force of the argument against came from Liz McManus’ statement that the mandate was a cross community one. No one could realistically expect Unionists to pick up their end of that particular mandate.

As Brian Feeney noted at the time, Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein could have clubbed together the necessary votes, but Bertie didn’t go with it because the PDs were opposed. Nothing substantive has changed since then.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty