The Oireachtas (pronounced ERR-ək-təs) sometimes referred to as Oireachtas Éireann, is the legislature of Ireland. The Oireachtas consists of: The President of Ireland The two houses of the Oireachtas Dáil Éireann (lower house) Seanad Éireann (upper house) The houses of the Oireachtas sit in Leinster House in Dublin, an eighteenth-century ducal palace. When the first Dáil met in 1919, there had been no Parliament in Ireland for over 100 years. One of the first questions was where the Dáil should sit. The directly elected Dáil is by far the more powerful branch of the Oireachtas.
A Parliament seeking a home
The revolutionary first Dáil had hired the Round Room of Dublin’s Mansion House for its first meeting on 21 January 1919. Thereafter, the Dáil met in the Mansion-house and various other locations. After the Treaty with Britain and the general election of June 1922, the Oireachtas was in a position to take up a more permanent residence and set about finding a suitable building. Leinster House was built in the mid 18th century by the Earl of Kildare, James Fitzgerald. Just 22 years old when he inherited his father’s title, Lord Fitzgerald immediately bought a piece of land in Dublin where he planned to build a splendid townhouse that would reflect his wealth and social status. When a friend remarked that that site was remote and unfashionable, the Earl is said to have replied, “They will follow me wherever I go.”
Fitzgerald hired Richard Castle, the leading architect in Ireland, to create a Palladian country house in town with a double height hall and a picture gallery. Castle’s design, in particular, the projecting bow on the north side, is said to have inspired the design of the White House, the residence of the President of the United States. The architect of the White House, James Hoban, was an Irishman who studied in Dublin and would certainly have been familiar with the design of Leinster House. Construction started in 1745 and continued for several years. At the time, the sittings of the Parliament of Ireland drew a large social circle to Dublin each winter for the season. In 1747, the Earl married Lady Emily Lennox, daughter of the Duke of Richmond, but it was some years before they could take up residence in their town house. In 1766, the Earl was created Duke of Leinster, and his town house became known as Leinster House.
The term oireachtas derives from the Old Irish word airech (“nobleman”). Its first recorded use as the name of a legislative body was within the Irish Free State.
Dáil Éireann, the lower house, is directly elected under universal suffrage of all Irish and United Kingdom citizens who are residents and at least eighteen years old. An election is held at least once every five years as required by law, however, the house can be dissolved at any time at the request of the Taoiseach (head of government). Dáil elections use a system of proportional representation by way of a single transferable vote. The Dáil has had 166 members since 1981. The Seanad is not directly elected but consists of a mixture of members selected in a number of different ways. 43 senators are elected by councillors and parliamentarians, 11 are appointed by the Taoiseach, and six are elected by two university constituencies, thus having 60 members in total. The President of Ireland is directly elected once every seven years and may serve a maximum of two terms, however, if, as has occurred on a number of occasions, a consensus among the larger political parties can result in only a single candidate being nominated, no actual ballot takes place.
To become law, a bill must first be approved by both the Dáil and in most circumstances the Seanad (although the Dáil can override a Seanad refusal to pass a Bill), and then signed into law by the President. Bills to amend the Constitution must also be approved by the People in a referendum prior to being presented to the President. In most circumstances, the President is in effect obliged to sign all laws approved by the Houses of the Oireachtas, although he or she has the power to refer most bills to the Supreme Court for a ruling on constitutionality. The powers of the Seanad are in effect limited to delay rather than veto. It is the Dáil, therefore, that is the supreme tier of the Irish legislature. The general enacting formula for Acts of the Oireachtas is: “Be it enacted by the Oireachtas as follows:-“, for an act with a preamble this enacting formula is, instead, “Be it therefore enacted by the Oireachtas as follows:—”.
The Oireachtas has exclusive power to:
- Legislate, including a power vested in the Dáil of approving the financial resolutions relevant to the budget. However, the courts have allowed the Oireachtas to delegate limited legislative powers to other entities, such as Government Ministers.
- Create subordinate legislatures.
- Propose changes to the constitution (must be initiated in the Dáil), which must then be submitted to a referendum. Raise military or armed forces.
- Allow international agreements to become part of the domestic law of the state.
- Pass certain laws having an extraterritorial effect (in accordance with the similar practices of other states).
- Enact, when it considers a state of emergency to exist, almost any law it deems necessary, with the imposition of capital punishment being the only absolutely excluded act in all circumstances.