Dail bully-boys threaten our democracy
Coalition doesn't even bother to hide its contempt for voters as it stifles debate, writes Gene Kerrigan
Published 17/02/2013 | 04:00
Suppose I said that Michael Noonan, the Minister for Finance, was lying in the Dail last Tuesday. It wouldn't be true, but suppose I said it. Would I be in trouble? No – I'd simply withdraw the remark. "I withdraw the remark." No harm done. That's how it works in the Dail. You can say anything you like – then formally withdraw it and you're off the hook.
I have no evidence whatever to suggest that Mr Noonan lied in the Dail. I made the above remark only to illustrate a point about the Government's current assault on democracy – as shown by events in the Dail last week and the week before.
Assault on democracy? An exaggeration, surely?
Not in the least. On several levels, the concept of representative democracy is under attack. One of the most important aspects of representative democracy – the right to vote – will no doubt be preserved. For most people, the right to vote is the essence of democracy, to remove that would be to invite widespread alarm and resistance.
But there are other aspects of democracy that are as important – information, explanation, informed and free debate and accountability. Without these, the right to vote lacks meaning.
And, in the atmosphere of urgency that pervades the economic crisis, this Government isn't bothering to disguise its contempt for the structures and principles of democracy. They are not intent on scrapping representative democracy – they would be appalled at the thought. But their actions ensure that informed debate and meaningful choice are stifled.
It's usual in the Dail to simply withdraw offensive words, but not to state plainly that they were untrue. Thus, the insult is left hanging. It's a rotten thing to do, but Noonan was at that game last week.
We'll get to what Noonan and other ministers did in the Dail last week in a moment. First, a couple of paragraphs of context.
In theory, the Dail and Seanad debate policies and authorise the Cabinet to implement those policies. In fact, for many years, the Dail and Seanad have been all but irrelevant. Parties "whip" their TDs and senators, instructing them how to vote.
Notoriously, last March, Fine Gael TD Peter Mathews put down a perfectly proper motion that he strongly believed was helpful to the Dail – and was then forced by his party to vote against it.
The Cabinet doesn't take its policies from the Dail and Seanad, after open debate. Quite the reverse. It uses a whipped parliament to rubber stamp policies drawn up with the counsel of unelected "advisers" and outside bodies (such as the ECB, and business interests it "consults").
Since 2011, this has become much worse. Just as the Cabinet sidelines the Dail and Seanad, so the Economic Management Council (EMC) sidelines the Cabinet.
The EMC is a cabal of four (Kenny, Noonan, Howlin and Gilmore), along with unelected advisers. In the current atmosphere, policies that will affect generations are discussed in the Dail (and sometimes the Cabinet) after the event.
Never in the history of the State have so many crucial decisions been taken by so few. From the bank guarantee of 2008 to last week's "debate" on the promissory note conclusion, parliament is an afterthought.
Here's independent TD Catherine Murphy on the Dail "debate" on the promissory note deal: "It is a congratulatory motion rather than one making a real decision; that is the crux of the problem. . . The relevance of the parliament hinges on the substance of an issue. What we are doing is debating a decision after the event."
Now, to that "debate".
It was introduced on Thursday week last. Enda Kenny's speech was interrupted twice – by his own supporters saying, "hear, hear". Eamon Gilmore was interrupted once, when he said the deal would lift a burden from the people. Joe Higgins said, "No, it will not".
When Micheal Martin began speaking, the Government side knew it had an opportunity to belittle him in front of his troops. The Dail record shows he was interrupted by Emmet Stagg, Labour chief whip. Then Regina Doherty, Fine Gael, then Pat Rabbitte. Rabbitte is legendary for his wit – which was on full display: "Do not be talking rubbish," he quipped hilariously.
David Stanton and Paudie Coffey of Fine Gael weighed in, then Rabbitte again. And again. Then Paul Kehoe, Fine Gael chief whip and minister of state. Then Justice Minister Alan Shatter, then Rabbitte again. "Look at the windbags," he wisecracked.
Then Rabbitte again, then Jerry Buttimer, Joe Higgins, Emmet Stagg again and Brendan Howlin. And, finally, inevitably, the King of Windbaggery, Pat Rabbitte again.
The effect was to destroy any flow or coherence. Fianna Fail people answered back, which made things worse.
Last Tuesday, the "debate" continued. For most speakers, there were few, if any, interruptions. Then, Pearse Doherty of Sinn Fein got up. On his sixth sentence he was interrupted by Michael Noonan. Other Sinn Fein speakers, including Gerry Adams and Mary Lou McDonald, were not treated to the bullying that followed. It is Doherty, who argues articulately and knowledgeably on financial matters, who had to be rubbished.
After three Noonan interruptions, Howlin chimed in. There then followed a bruising passage in which sentence after sentence from Doherty was choked off. The acting chairman, Ciaran Lynch, appealed to Noonan and Howlin to stop. They continued.
Lynch managed to get Doherty some clear space in which to make points, but the ministers returned to the barrage, denying Doherty his right to speak without interruption.
Joe Higgins and Richard Boyd Barrett got an easy ride. When independent TD Stephen Donnelly rose, the barrage resumed. The Government can sneer at and dismiss Higgins, Boyd Barrett and Clare Daly – the lefties "up in the corner". Donnelly wears a suit. He seems to share many of the values of government ministers. He might well fit right into Fine Gael or some kind of PD Nua. If he had his brain removed.
His opposition to dumping private debt on the backs of citizens is reasoned and articulate. That's what the government parties can't stand. On his fifth interruption of Donnelly, Noonan said: "The deputy was lying on Marian Finucane's show the other morning."
Now, Donnelly might be wrong on this issue (I don't believe so) but to call him a liar demands the kind of evidence Noonan didn't even try to present. This could have got him into parliamentary trouble, so he formally withdrew the remark, without stating his accusation was baseless. Then he came back with more interruptions.
"Please minister," begged Ciaran Lynch. But Noonan interrupted again. And again.
This wasn't the mindless crowing of backbenchers. These were ministers, deliberately targeting and disrupting an articulate opposition, using bullying tactics instead of debate.
The actions of the major parties have disengaged the political structures from the citizens. There simply isn't any reason to vote – we see politicians openly lie at elections and doing exactly the opposite when elected.
The Government has a huge majority. The media has donned the green jersey. Yet the Government is currently undermining, by any means possible, what remains of a functioning opposition within the Oireachtas.
Is there no one at any level within Fine Gael or Labour who has a problem with this? Is there none who can see the potential consequences of this?