Tuesday 27 September 2016

'Trust and faith in politicians is broken'

Ceann Comhairle Sean Ó Feargháil vows to lead the Dáil on a voyage of discovery

Published 20/06/2016 | 02:30

Seán Ó Fearghail: Trust between public and politics has broken down Photo: Doug O'Connor
Seán Ó Fearghail: Trust between public and politics has broken down Photo: Doug O'Connor

From the Muppets T-shirt to the Italian soccer jersey, the issue of Dáil attire has attracted the ire of voters in recent years.

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The authorities within Leinster House continue to be bombarded with correspondence from members of the public who believe scruffy TDs need to clean up their act.

But the man now responsible for policing business inside the country's most famous chamber says the opportunity to introduce a formal dress code is one that has passed.

"It wasn't addressed in the last term and I think, five years later, it's too late to turn back the clock on that issue," according to Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl.

Mr Ó Fearghaíl does, however, vow to take action in relation to another bugbear of the public: TDs' use of their mobile phones.

The Kildare South TD believes TDs texting or making phone calls during Dáil debates displays the "height of bad manners" and is a practice he is prepared to stamp out.

"I think politicians, in fairness, have an unhealthy relationship with their mobile phones. They are almost like my teenage children, you'd have to force them away from their equipment, whether it's their mobile phones or iPads," he says.

"I don't think they need to be speaking to their constituents every second of the day."

The amount of time TDs will be allowed spend among their constituents this summer has been the subject of controversy in recent weeks.

Last month, the Fine Gael parliamentary party was told the Dáil would rise on July 7 - allowing TDs to enjoy a three-month break.

This is due to the fact substantial renovations are being carried out in Leinster.

A three-month holiday? Not so, says the Ceann Comhairle.

"I don't know where the seventh of July came from. It didn't come from this office or from anyone else that is senior within the Oireachtas system.

"It's not for me to call, but I would be very surprised if we are not here until the 21st of July. And then we will come back in September."

Another matter that has caused divisions within the houses of parliament is the future of the Dáil prayer.

Anti-Austerity Alliance/People Before Profit (AAA/PBP) TD Paul Murphy described the prayer as "anachronistic", while Green Party leader Eamon Ryan suggested replacing it with a minute's silence. Mr Ó Fearghaíl believes a compromise could be struck.

"I think what they've done in the Seanad is very positive. They have a prayer and a minute for reflection and I think for me that would seem to solve or address most people's issues or concerns."

But dress code, mobile phones, the Dáil prayer and TDs' summer holidays aside, Mr Ó Fearghaíl believes there is a far more pressing issue facing the members of the 32nd Dáil.

Public trust and confidence in Irish politics is broken, he says, and everything must be done to fix it.

"I think we have a situation where the faith between the public and politicians is broken. We have a problem. We need to rehabilitate ourselves and the system in the eyes of the public and that's something I'd be very committed to doing," Mr Ó Fearghaíl says.

"My simple ambition would be Joe citizen sitting in his or her living room looking at the Oireachtas report or Oireachtas TV or reading your report in the Irish Independent would say 'Oh gosh, you know what, they are actually doing a good job'.

"I don't think that's an awful lot to expect. We need to restore public confidence that the system is working in the public interest, that it's focussed on the issues that are important to people."

Mr Ó Fearghaíl's election on March 10 was historic on many fronts, most notably because it was first time the position was filled by secret ballot.

Liked and respected by TDs from all sides, the father of four says he wants to be remembered as a politician who served at a time when this much spoken about 'political reform' really began.

"We're on a voyage of discovery if you like," he says.

The Ceann Comhairle accepts, however, that the recent two-hour election to fill the position of the Leas Cheann Comhairle is far from representing 'new politics'.

The issue will be re-examined by the party whips after none of the candidates who put their names forward secured enough support.

In his interview, Mr Ó Feargháil reveals that he had to cut short an official trip to Luxembourg recently because of the absence of a deputy chairperson.

"For my own part, I cannot leave Leinster House from the time the business is due to start in the morning until it ends, so if I have official responsibilities anywhere else, I'm afraid I can't go. I am confined to the house because there's no Leas Cheann Comhairle."

Nonetheless, he is confident that the 32nd Dáil can be one that oversees significant change in Irish politics.

But what about ministers who, as we have seen in the past, try and dodge the questions they can't or don't want to answer?

Mr Ó Fearghaíl insists he will produce a report that will "name and shame" ministers in this regard.

"I don't want to be in the position of doing it but I bloody well will if I find myself confronted by someone who disregards the questioner and disrespects the Dáil member, who has a perfect right and entitlement to ask the question."

Asked about his own style of chairing business, Mr Ó Fearghaíl says he does not intend to mimic his counterpart in the House of Commons, John Bercow.

He says being "loud and gregarious" only elicits "that kind of response".

Mr Ó Fearghaíl admits that he was concerned that serving as Ceann Comhairle would be a somewhat lonely position, as is the perception within Leinster House.

He admits that in order to be seen as fair and balanced, he can no longer have the same "palsy walsy" relationship particularly with Fianna Fáil people.

But, he insists, nothing will stop him from enjoying a pint or cup of coffee with Enda Kenny, Micheál Martin or Gerry Adams.

Irish Independent

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