FOR a change, the Ceann Comhairle was sporting a benign expression as he surveyed the two sides of the House locked in a lively debate over the Children's Referendum.
And this was because – for a change – there were no rowdy ructions or raucous name-calling, and every deputy was nicely dressed.
Alas for Sean Barrett, he wasn't presiding in his usual regal seat in the national parliament, but from a podium in a hall in the National University of Ireland in Maynooth.
And arrayed before him were not members of the Oireachtas, but secondary school students from across the country, taking part in a Model Parliament debate on the passing of the Children's Bill – the room was divided into Party X (the Government side) and Party Y (the Opposition), complete with a Taoiseach, a leader of the Opposition, speakers for both sides and rows of Independents who would vote on the bill after the debate.
However, the members of this particular parliament quickly learned that this Ceann Comhairle is quite a stickler for the Rules of the House. For the 'Taoiseach', Felim O'Maolmhana from Lucan, had turned up without a jacket. Sean was determined to impose a strict dress code on this pretend parliament, even though he's been confronted with such indignities as the sight of a deputy sporting a ' Sesame Street' T-shirt in the real chamber.
And so Felim was dispatched to find a jacket – a suede one was the best he could do at short notice.
But that was the only stern word out of the famously peppery Ceann Comhairle for the afternoon, as he listened to almost 30 'deputies' argue their cases for and against the bill.
And there was even a wry smile as he listened to the Taoiseach and Tanaiste present their closing remarks – some of which sounded remarkably familiar. There had been "nothing constructive from the Opposition", and their arguments were merely "opposition for the sake of opposition", reckoned Taoiseach Felim, while opposition leader Stephen Leo from Tuam in reply accused the government side of not answering any of the questions he had put to them.
Dail deja-vu indeed.
Afterwards, the Ceann Comhairle pronounced himself "impressed by the clarity you displayed and the manner in which you addressed the House, particularly the fact that you came properly dressed and adhered to the Code of the House," he added pointedly, harbouring perhaps an image of a puppet-festooned T-shirt. "Also, we need to be reminded that we don't have to shout at each other to make our point – it was a pleasure as Ceann Comhairle to sit and listen to sensible argument," he declared, the "for a change" flapping unsaid at the end of that sentence like a sock on a washing-line.
However, Sean did put in a good word for his day job.
"Keep in mind that politics is a noble profession, despite the fact that from time to time we do take a bit of a hammering, and deservedly so on many occasions," he told the students.
And as it turned out, the voters in the room did give the Government a bit of a hammering – the bill was defeated by the Independents.
As Sean departed, he admitted that the session had been more restful than the real thing – only last week, an exasperated Ceann Comhairle berated the bawling deputies as behaving like "gurriers", a word on the Dail's list of banned insults.
But he was unrepentant.
"Sometimes they go overboard," he said. "A bit of banter is fine, but we can't be having shouting matches. It's just not on."