Saturday 22 October 2016

Old building repairs offer TDs a new alibi for early holidays

Published 27/05/2016 | 02:30

Taoiseach Enda Kenny outside Leinster House. Photo: Tom Burke
Taoiseach Enda Kenny outside Leinster House. Photo: Tom Burke

You could hardly expect TDs to return to an autumnal Leinster House without knowing who won the Rose of Tralee, much less who won the Sam Maguire Cup. Never mind that the answer to both questions, in real and material terms, was often Kerry.

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In politics you could never be too sure of anything. So, in the meantime, it was best to let the holidays run.

In fact, to be on the safe side, it was best to leave Leinster House good and early to avoid other surprises.

Let's look back randomly at the Dáil holiday calendar of recent years. In the 2003 our TDs kicked it in on July 3 and struggled back on September 30. In 1999, they split up on July 2 and returned on September 29. In 2006, they struggled all the way to July 6 and managed to get back on September 28.

That's just a sampler - we could go on. We can clearly see that our politicians are always keen to keep August clear for the holidays. They are equally keen to sit in July and September, albeit barely topping and tailing both months respectively.

They will tell you about those Oireachtas committees which run deep into July. More convincingly, they will tell you that the constituency office is rarely idle. But just you try and run the Dáil holiday schedule past your boss, and see how you get on.

We may, or may not, be facing into a new era of politics. But radical change, or indeed change of any kind, may be slower to reach the political holiday schedule.

We know the Dáil broke for the general election campaign on February 3 last, and the newly-elected TDs came back to Leinster House on March 10. There were 10 sitting days before the elongated process gave us a new and strange form of government on May 6.

Then there was a 10-day lay-off to allow the new government ministers "read themselves in." Since last week, we have had the new expanded team of 18 junior ministers. We still await the Taoiseach's eleven nominated senators to complete the Oireachtas, or national law-making machine.

We have many times acknowledged that the government-making process of the past few months was difficult and time-consuming. In reality the new political order was beginning to get to a spluttering start this week.

But it appears it's never too early to plan those holidays. Fine Gael TDs and senators emerging from Wednesday night's parliamentary party meeting let it be known that the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, was talking about holidays starting on July 7 next. The expected return date was sometime in "mid-September" - or new political holidays, much like old political holidays.

But this time there is a rather novel excuse: overdue building works at Leinster House, a remarkable building complex, which is replete with history, and some parts of which date from as early as 1745. Now, if you want people to knock walls through windows, the Office of Public Works (OPW), responsible for such projects, are your only men and women. They're extremely good - but they're slow and they're dear.

In fairness, OPW have a lot of scarce conservation expertise, and a venerable building such as Leinster House, with a throughput of tens of thousands of visitors annually, requires special care.

The repair list is lengthy and includes full rewiring of the house, the replacement of a lift and structural strengthening of some floors. There is a need for more fire prevention measures, refurbishment of windows and the reinstatement of the original entrance door on the Leinster Lawn, or Merrion Square, end of the building.

It's impossible to argue with any of this. But it is equally clear that it offers a perfect political alibi for "old holidays."

Another feature of lavish Leinster House holidays in times past was the phoney outrage from the opposition benches. There was a kind of annual ritual, where the non-government TDs wound themselves up and let rip with a bakers' list of the nation's ills, and built their outrage at the government calling early holidays, with a late return.

Later there would be ribald exchanges about what would happen, in the unlikely case of the government relenting, and destroying everyone's holiday plans - including those of the opposition.

But, despite the play-acting, there was a serious point to all of that.

It is simply that all governments benefit from a holiday season where the opposition are not seen or heard in newspapers, radio and television, to be laying into them.

Even beleaguered governments got a lift in autumn opinion polls after a summer ceasefire. This ramshackle and novice administration could do with such a respite.

But the Taoiseach's announcement on Wednesday raised hackles among the others. Had Enda Kenny forgotten current Dáil arithmetic? Is there no chance of improvising Dáil work in various other offices?

Irish Independent

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