Sunday 28 December 2014

The greatest ever Dail debates -- starring Garret, Dessie and, yes, Bertie Ahern!

Published 28/10/2012 | 06:00

Michael Bell, the former Labour TD, once told the Dáil that as a young man he had visited a barber in London who offered him a handful of contraceptives.

"I bought them," Bell said, "and the reason I bought them was that I thought they were shampoos."

Bell made this revelation in the course of a landmark Dáil debate in February 1985 which is remembered most for Des O'Malley's pledge to "stand by the Republic".

John Drennan's book takes its title from O'Malley's famous speech and the author provides a thought-provoking analysis of 50 of the most defining debates in our national parliament.

People often dismiss the Dáil as boring but this book provides no shortage of high drama. Des O'Malley's final breach with Fianna Fáil was one such moment. This came about as a result of a Bill introduced by Barry Desmond to liberalise the sale of contraceptives.

O'Malley's refusal to vote with his Fianna Fáil colleagues against this legislation allowed Charles Haughey to expel his nemesis from the party.

In a scintillating Dáil speech, O'Malley explained his rationale, but, as Drennan perceptively points out, the Limerick TD's stance was not just a rejection of his own party's position, it was "a genuine personal revolution against his previous allegiance to the old confessional ethos".

Previously, in opposing legislation on the importation of contraceptives, O'Malley had said he believed in "the protection of morals through the deterrence of fornication". The past is indeed a different country.

The starting point for Drennan's book is 1948. This was the year that John Costello, in Ottawa, declared an Irish Republic. Fianna Fáil, newly consigned to the opposition's benches, were livid at what they viewed as a Fine Gael-led government's attempt to steal their clothes.

Drennan highlights that in the ensuing Dáil debate Seán Lemass made a bitter contribution. With scathing irony, Lemass welcomed Fine Gael's conversion to the republican position. He added that he did not "want them to make any public act of regret or acceptance" for their delay in reaching this point.

Drennan documents that in opposing Lemass's nomination as Taoiseach, James Dillon called him a fraud and Oliver Flanagan accused him of blackmail.

Twenty years later, Charles Haughey was also subjected to strong personal criticism on his nomination as Taoiseach. Noel Browne said he was "a dreadful cross between Richard Milhous Nixon and Dr Salazar". Much suspicion of Haughey stemmed from the Arms Crisis and Drennan gives a masterly exposition of the emotion that this debate generated in 1970.

In April 1998, in a very different atmosphere, Bertie Ahern told the Dáil: "I am laying before the house a settlement for peace in Northern Ireland."

The Good Friday Agreement was a triumph for politics. It is now populist to denigrate Ahern's accomplishments, but his immense talent for negotiation served the nation well.

Drennan's book concludes with some Dáil debates during the recent economic collapse. While historians may draw more nuanced conclusions, this is a must-read book for anyone with an interest in Irish politics.

Brian Murphy, a former speechwriter to two Taoisigh, is now completing a PhD in History in UCD

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