The legislative process is one process that many people often find quite difficult to understand due to its complexity. Grasping the process however needs one to take interest in the working of the government and the contents of the constitution. Understanding the functioning of the legislature which is one arm of the tripartite government system of Ireland is most vital in particular. A tripartite system is used to represent the separation of powers in the government. As a result, the government has three arms namely; the executive, the judiciary and the legislature. In Ireland, the constitution vests the law making power in the parliament, better known as the Oireachtas.
The president, the Senate (Seanad Éireann) and the House of Representatives (Dáil Éireann) make up the Oireachtas. The duty of law making being given to the Parliament can be traced back in History even before the modern separation of powers by the government in the 19th century. When the Dublin Parliament was disbanded in the year 1800, the Westminster Parliament gained the authority to make laws until the Irish Free State was established in 1922. This role has been there only that it is better defined in the modern times. This paper will describe the legislative process and how the Oireachtas operates. All the while, the process will be discussed according to the Irish Constitution.
Before the parliament can undertake the making of any law, it is introduced to the house as a Bill which is a legislation proposal. Prior to this however, the government must approve this and the process involves consultations with all departments that are likely to be affected by the Bill. At certain times, a Green Paper is published showing the proposals and asking the public to make comments on the Bill before it can be discussed in Parliament (Briain, 1991). A Bill can either be a private or a public Bill. Public Bills apply to all the citizens in general while private bills are normally proposed by private bodies and local authorities to serve specific purposes (Briain, 1991).
These are however rare and public Bills make up most of the Bills that are discussed in the Oireachtas. Whenever a Bill is initiated by the members of the opposition, this is referred to as the Private Members' Bill. A Private Members Bill denotes that the Bill is not sponsored by the President, a Minister or the Attorney General. This shows that not only the government side proposes the laws in Parliament. Furthermore, the Irish constitution provides for every party to have one private members bill every now and then (Briain, 1991)
The Parliamentary Procedure
A Bill goes through five stages before it can be declared a law and published in the Official Gazette which is also known as the Iris Oifigiuil (Byrne and McCutcheon, 2009)
1) First Stage
It is during this stage that the Bill is introduced to the House by the minister responsible. Apart from the introduction of the Bill made in the House, the Minister may seek permission to circulate the Bill to the House members. The first stage is actually meant to make the members aware of the proposed constitution so that when the second stage where the real process starts, they will be prepared and have an idea on the arguments to put forth regarding the Bill.
2) The Second Stage
This is the first time that the Bill is discussed even though this is done generally. The Minister lays the Bill on the table and presents a brief case on the considerations made and why the Bill should become law. This stage basically involves a general debate to determine whether the House is going to discuss the Bill further or not. It is not a real discussion and the members only present their views either to support or reject the Bill. Although it is rare for the House to reject a Government Bill at this stage, certain instances where Bills are rejected do occur.
3) Third Stage (Committee Stage)
The real debate now begins and the members of the house take section by section of the proposed legislation and debate it in detail. At this point in time, the House only discusses concrete matters concerning the bill and they may not debate about its desirability because this has already been done in the previous stage. Due to the nature of this stage in the legislative process, this stage is bound to be quite lengthy and hence may consume a lot of time for the House.
As a result, a committee is usually selected to look into the debate with each party selecting its own member to represent the House. The committee will undertake lengthy debates to establish how this law can be implemented and the implications it is likely to have in on the public. Its consistency with the constitution is also discussed. These selected members are usually experts or those with special interests in the Bill such that the parliament is saved a lot of time by selecting a committee.
4) Fourth Stage (Report stage)
The selected committee now brings the house the developments that they have come with during the committee stage so that they can be reviewed (Byrne and McCutcheon, 2009). During this stage, amendments on the Bill may be done. It incorporates the views of the House and establishes whether the committee has covered all aspects of the Bill.
5) Fifth Stage
This forms the final stage of the Bill and by this time, the House is already in agreement that the Bill should be made into a law and that all the requirements are in place. During this stage, members of the House can only make verbal amendments since most amendments were made during the report stage.
Signing of the Bill into law
A Bill finally becomes law when it is signed by the President; approximately five days after it is passed. The law is made official when it is placed in the Iris Oifigiuil. After this, the law cannot be challenged since it is deemed constitutional. This indicates that for the Bill to be signed, it must be in accordance with the constitution. This is supported by Article 26.3.1 which maintains that the laws may not go against the constitution (Byrne and McCutcheon, 2009).
The President consults the Council of State and may order that the Bill be referred to the Supreme Court as detailed in Article 26 (Byrne and McCutcheon, 2009). If the Supreme Court finds the law provisions to be unconstitutional, the President cannot sign the Bill (Byrne and McCutcheon, 2009). Again, if a third of the House of Representatives and a majority of the Senate petition the President not to endorse the Bill, it cannot be signed to make it into a law.
This is mostly based on the grounds that the implications of the law are of national importance such that it requires the willingness of people to take up the law. The provision for this is found in Article 27. In such an event, a conclusion can be reached by letting the public vote as in the case of a referendum or waiting until the there is a re-election. The idea is that the newly elected officials represent the wishes of the people who elected them.
Private Members Bill
For the Private Members Bills, the process may differ a little bit from the normal government Bill. Instead of being introduced by the Minister or the President or the Attorney General in certain circumstances, a member of the opposition presents the Bill. On reaching the second stage, the Bill is discussed for a maximum of six hours before being sent to a select committee. Note that in the normal government Bill the committee comprises of a representative of the whole house. This is where the difference in procedure comes in. However, the rest of the processes are carried on as usual before the Bill can eventually be declared a law of the land.
The difference in procedure for this kind of Bill is that it requires consent from the public (Byrne and McCutcheon, 2009). As a result, once the Bill is completed, people are allowed to vote for or against the bill in a referendum. The majority votes determine whether the bill will be signed by the President or not. If a Bill is defeated during a referendum, the President may not sign it. On the contrary, if it is voted for by the majority the President signs and promulgates it so that it becomes law.
The procedure for private legislation is a bit different from the normal legislative process. This is because private Bills are normally meant to cater for the needs of a particular private group or individual and which the constitution does not provide for.
The promoter of the bill will introduce the Private Bill to the Senate under the supervision of the chairman of Dáil Éireann and the speaker of the Seanad Éireann (Byrne and McCutcheon, 2009). The Private Bill's subject matter is published as a note in the paper and a copy of the same sent to the Oireachtas. People are then given a chance to contest the Bill depending on whether it affects their rights. An agreement by everyone in the House qualifies the Bill for the second stage. Nothing much is involved in the second stage and the Bill is passed to the third stage to a joint committee.
What is notable is that the members of the committee should not have any personal interests in the contents of the Bill (Byrne and McCutcheon, 2009). The promoter is required to justify why the Bill is necessary and witnesses may be involved. The fourth stage is to report to both the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Senate is actually the one involved in the fourth and fifth stage process. The Bill is then passed to the House of Representatives. The House of Representatives does not go through the first three stages but rather goes direct to the fourth and fifth stage until the Bill is made into law. This process is usually expensive and time consuming and the promoters pay for the cost of making the Bill.
Superiority of Dáil Éireann
The provisions of the Irish Constitution tend to weaken the function of the Seanad Éireann and give superiority to the Dáil Éireann. Article 23 states that the House of Representatives is more supreme than the Senate and may overrule it in the legislation process (Byrne and McCutcheon, 2009). This means that the House of Representatives can still pass a law that has been rejected as if it has been agreed upon by both houses. Further, a bill passed by the Senate according to Article 23 must be examined for the second time by the Senate if it was amended by the House of Representatives. The proposition is that since the Bill was amended by the House of Representatives, it is the one that initiated it.
It is worth noting that there are those Bills that can only be proposed by the House of Representatives such as Money Bills and constitution amendment Bills. Money Bills according to Article 22.1.1 encompass tax Bills, debt payment, appropriation and audit among other money matters. The constitution gives the Senate only 21 days to recommend the Bill.
Even though the Seanad Éireann is made inferior by the provisions of the Constitution, the Senate has to work under the terms given under Article 23 to prevent any chances of evoking the article (Byrne and McCutcheon, 2009).
The Parliament or the Oireachtas possesses the power to make laws in the Irish Constitution. The laws must however be to the best interests of the nation and not go contrary to the provisions made by the constitution. The Oireachtas, consisting of the President, the Senate and the House of Representatives must take all Bills or proposed laws through all the five stages before it becomes law. Special Bills such as constitutional Bills and Private Bills may have a slightly different procedure which they have to pass through. In the making of legislation, the Irish Constitution gives superiority to the House of Representatives such that the House can pass legislation without necessarily having to be approved by the Senate.
The House of Representatives also has special powers in that it is the only one that can pass Bills such as Money Bills or Constitutional Bills. Even then, the two Houses must work in harmony for better functioning of the Oireachtas hence the reason why the Senate must adhere to Article 23 of the Constitution.
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Briain, L. T. (1991). The Irish Constitution. Bowen Hills: Talbot press
Byrne, R. J. & McCutcheon, P. (2009). The Irish Legal System, 5th ed. UK: Tottel Publishing.