Thursday 20 October 2016

War of Leinster House Lilliputians no small matter

The spat between the 'Dear Leader' and the Ceann Comhairle could cause huge difficulties, writes John Drennan

Published 29/09/2013 | 05:00

COMMITMENT: Ceann Comhairle Sean Barrett
COMMITMENT: Ceann Comhairle Sean Barrett

NOT since the great fall of John O'Donoghue has a Ceann Comhairle made a more remarkable intervention on the floor of the Dail than Sean Barrett's angry defence of his reputation last week.

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We should, given all those promises made after election 2011, be midway through our 'democratic revolution'. Instead, there was a hollow echo of the Haughey era surrounding the Ceann Comhairle's claim that, when it comes to appointing a successor to Kieran Coughlan, the Clerk of the Dail, people were "leaking stuff'' in an attempt to "blacken my good name''.

Barrett did not specify any individuals, but, seeing that the Ceann Comhairle is fighting with the Government, it doesn't take a genius to see to whom he might be referring.

The now very open tensions between the Taoiseach and the Ceann Comhairle over the appointment of a new Clerk of the Dail might appear to be one of those wars of the Leinster House Lilliputians with little relevance to the real world. But trouble in the Ceann Comhairle's office can be a source of acute embarrassment – as Brian Cowen found out in the wake of the revelations about the palatial excesses of 'the Bull' O'Donoghue.

The political difficulty for Biffo lay not in the resignation of 'the Bull' but in the way the exploits of O'Donoghue unveiled a culture of high living at the decaying heart of Cowen's administration.

In the case of the squabble between Enda and the Ceann Comhairle, the political danger for the 'Dear Leader' is that it will confirm the public perception of the increasingly 'autocratic' tendencies of the Taoiseach.

As with many political battles, the tension between Barrett and the Government is not entirely what it appears to be. The difficulties appear to consist of a spat over whether the Ceann Comhairle or the Taoiseach and Cabinet have the right to appoint the next Clerk of the Dail. However, the real issue at play is whether the Ceann Comhairle or the Taoiseach runs the Dail.

The constitutional independence of the Ceann Comhairle's office may appear to be a technical sort of spat, but this is no small thing, for the key role of an independent Ceann Comhairle's office is to protect the rights and liberties of TDs.

This is definitely no easy thing under a Taoiseach and a Cabinet whose susceptibility to control freakery – for instance, the desire to put manners on senators, independent-thinking TDs, the Reform Alliance – is starting to mimic the Haughey era.

The Government will argue such a claim is excessive, and the last thing 'King Enda' wants is to see the 'autocratic' Taoiseach genie being let out of the bottle in the final week of what could yet be a tightly contested Seanad referendum. Yet the mostly Fianna-Fail-inspired claims that King Enda has become 'the Great Dictator' can only be enhanced by the spectacle in which the politically sensitive relationship between the Government and the Ceann Comhairle is facing its greatest crisis since the high-profile resignation of John O'Donoghue.

Intriguingly, it is the Taoiseach's own who are most vocal, in private, in opposing yet another "power grab by Enda". Within Fine Gael, anger is growing about how a government that promised to be "open and transparent and accountable after the referendum, are, when it comes to appointing who will run the Dail, bypassing parliament and having the Cabinet decide''.

Senior figures have claimed "it's the iron fist again, if they're going to be so forceful with the Ceann Comhairle, what chance does the ordinary TD have if they want to defend their rights?''

In truth, relations between Kenny and Barrett have not been the easiest for some time. Barrett was not happy to be dropped into the elephant's graveyard of the Ceann Comhairle's office without even the consolation of a State car.

The Government was less than impressed than the public smiles suggested, when in the political equivalent of "killing home rule with kindness", Barrett granted speaking rights to the Reform Alliance.

Mind you, it is doubtful that Barrett, who though occasionally cantankerous, is highly respected for his passionate commitment to the independence of the Dail, was mollified by the dropping of his own proposals on that issue into the Cabinet bin with ne'er a second glance.

The problem Barrett now faces is that when it comes to those who cross him, King Enda, like the elephant, never forgets and he most assuredly does not forgive.

The squabble is all the more unfortunate when set against the context of the utterly unreformed nature of our Neverland of a Dail.

Nothing epitomises the ongoing adolescent state of Irish politics more than the contrast between David Cameron's response to being defeated on Syria and the response to the Fine Gael dissenters in the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill.

Sadly, Kenny's 'Victorian Dad' ethic and a level of tribalism that echoes Cowen's unrestrained 'party above country' political style suggests we won't be emulating the UK model any time soon.

Instead, the ongoing evolution of this Government and this Dail raises the question as to whether we have learnt anything from the Nyberg Report's critique of the "herd instinct" that played so critical a role in getting us to the land of "we are where we are".

One glance at most of the Fine Gael backbenchers provides us with a swift answer – for this is a Dail that increasingly has, under a government with a record majority, lost self-respect to such an extent that elements of the Government parties appear anxious to collude in their emasculation to secure political promotion.

Such a scenario means the lingering independence of the Dail needs to be enhanced rather than further gobbled up by an over-mighty Taoiseach and Cabinet that itself is now firmly under the thumb of the Economic Management Council 'gang of four'.

Kenny should be careful lest he think putting manners on the Ceann Comhairle is without too many dangers – for as Albert Reynolds once famously noted, the smallest hurdles cause Taoisigh the most trouble.

Significantly, now that "the private war between the Taoiseach and the Ceann Comhairle has gone public'', the possibility of a hugely controversial resignation is being mentioned.

Barrett, you see is "independently wealthy, unlike younger TDs, he does not need this job, he is short-tempered and could go in a flash''.

King Enda can only hope it doesn't happen next week because the last thing a shaky Seanad campaign needs is the high-profile resignation of a Ceann Comhairle.

Such an event might inspire quite a few voters to wonder why a Government with the largest majority in the history of the State wants to close the one harmless institution that can act as a check on its untrammelled power.

And if the voters started to really think about the motives behind King Enda's Seanad fatwa, that might not be good news at all.

Sunday Independent

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