Democratic Oversight Over the Irish Government in the Field of the Common Foreign and Security Policy
17 Pages Posted: 8 Oct 2009 Last revised: 1 Dec 2009
Date Written: May 20, 2005
Parliaments traditionally have some difficulty in maintaining effective democratic oversight over foreign policy. While they often have very specific entrenched constitutional rights in terms of Declarations of War or the ratification of international treaties (see, for example, Bunreacht na hÉireann, Article 28.3), parliaments usually face political and administrative restrictions when monitoring day-to-day foreign policy. This is due to the fact that; 1. Foreign policy rarely results in formal legislation. 2. It is usually seen as being an area of special prerogative of the Executive. 3. It is often seen as impinging on national security and national interests in such a way that it is argued that the normal rules of party politics should not apply and 4. It is generally agreed that the arts of diplomacy are best practiced outside the glare of direct public scrutiny.
For all of these reasons, parliaments find themselves struggling for influence over foreign policy. Precisely because it is so important, however, there is an ongoing need to ensure that foreign policy, outside the framework of treaty ratification, commands democratic support and is held to the highest standards of accountability.
It must be acknowledged at this point that the Oireachtas has not had a strong record in this regard. Despite formal constitutional provisions that would argue otherwise, the political reality is that the Oireachtas is effectively a servant of the Executive rather than its master (Gallagher, 1996: 126). Powerful party whips, a tradition of comparatively strong majority-holding governments (single and multi-party), an electoral system that is seen to reward assiduous constituency work over legislative activism and, overall, a comparatively weak committee structure, together traditionally undermined the Oireachtas’ capacity to hold the executive to account. Setting this atop the traditional distance that exists between foreign policy and effective parliamentary oversight only exacerbates the scale of the problem facing the Oireachtas in its oversight of Irish foreign policy (Keatinge, 1973).
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