Liz O'Donnell: Why it is so vital that we protect Dail dignity
Published 13/11/2012 | 17:00
Last week, thanks to a timely inquiry from Fianna Fail TD Michael McGrath, the gobsmacking salaries of top IBRC bankers were revealed. It was a useful reminder of the understated power of the parliamentary question. Too often the unintelligible and noisy exchanges that pass for Dail debate can eclipse the forensic work of Opposition deputies in holding the Government of the day to account.
In a democracy, a weak Opposition is just as dangerous as a bad Government. It has taken Fianna Fail well over a year to recover from its electoral mauling of 2011. But it looks like they are getting their act together now. Meanwhile, Sinn Fein has dined out on FF's discomfort and loss of mojo with its disciplined new deputies often taking on the role of main Opposition party. There is an art and skill involved in the role of Opposition. It goes way beyond scenes of baying deputies and an exasperated Ceann Comhairle trying to keep order.
Every week hundreds of parliamentary questions (PQs) are tabled to ministers by Opposition deputies seeking information, challenging facts and forcing the various departments to account for their areas of responsibility. Although all on the Dail record, this vital dialogue is for the most part under the public radar. Large numbers of civil servants are deployed to do little else but draft these replies, while the Ceann Comhairle's office oversees the process and sometimes mediates between the TD and the department being questioned.
It is not, however, all plain sailing, particularly when the reply risks political damage to a minister.
When this writer was marking the Ministers for Health and Justice as front bench spokesperson, I was regularly thwarted by evasive replies. The cover-up of state responsibility for the infection of hundreds of Irish women with hepatitis C by infected blood products was a classic example. The truth emerged, not as a result of our many efforts and questions in the Dail, but in documents discovered in the legal action taken by the late Brigid McCole.
Similarly, the Beef Tribunal found that if parliamentary questions about malpractice in the beef industry were honestly answered, there would have been no need for a tribunal to extract the truth. One draft reply discovered in departmental files revealed a shocking handwritten note in the margin by an official as follows: "that should confuse the Deputy".
One knows that a minister or department is on the run when the PQ is transferred like a hot potato to another department or when there is a suspicious delay.
That is what happened when a question on paedophile priest Brendan Smyth landed in the Taoiseach's office prompting a chain of events in the AG's office leading to the collapse of the then FF/Labour Government.
Trawling by way of freedom of information is popular with media. But the PQ is a far more powerful weapon of accountability when it comes to rattling or even toppling governments. Because lying to the Dail is a mortal parliamentary offence, the sanction for which is resignation.
So TDs are foolish and self-defeating to allow noise and disorder to obscure this valuable forensic work. Sean Barrett's frustrated charge of "gurriers" to describe the carry-on at Leaders' Questions recently wasn't far off the mark.
Ironically, by using the word to describe the collective misbehaviour, he nearly fell foul of the Dail's Standing Orders, which outlaws the use of "expressions which members may not use when referring to another member". The banned words are: "brat, buffoon, chancer, communist, corner boy, coward, fascist, gurrier, guttersnipe, hypocrite, rat, scumbag, scurrilous, scurrilous speaker and yahoo". While the list may be out of date, the rationale for having some standards of behaviour and rules of engagement is sound. With public confidence in politics on the floor, more, not less, regulation of parliamentary probity is needed.
And with legislation planned to give Oireachtas committees greater powers of enquiry and investigation, allowing them to make findings of uncontested fact and compel witnesses, rules and standards of behaviour will become essential.
When asked in referendum last year, the electorate rejected a more extensive proposal. I expect this was partly due to fears of TDs playing to the gallery with gay abandon of citizens' rights to natural justice. Respect for politicians and politics generally does not happen by chance, it must be earned.
And while on this topic, am I the only one who despairs at the sight of T-shirts in the Chamber? Call me old-fashioned but it is high time that the dress code was enforced. In my time, if a deputy arrived without a jacket, the convention requiring deputies to "dress in a way that reflects the dignity of the House" would be enforced and an usher would have a quiet word.
Nowadays a blind eye seems the preferred option of the Whips and Committee of Procedure and Privileges rather than risk a charge of being petty or, worse still, illiberal. Small things matter and at a time of national crisis it is legitimate to protect the dignity of our national parliament. So let's start with the jackets . . .
Liz O'Donnell is a former Junior Minister at the Department for Foreign Affairs