Tuesday 27 September 2016

Dail reform is important, but homelessness is bigger issue

Shane Ross

Published 13/03/2016 | 02:30

TAKING THE HOT SEAT: Newly elected Ceann Comhairle Sean O Fearghail. Photo: Maxwells
TAKING THE HOT SEAT: Newly elected Ceann Comhairle Sean O Fearghail. Photo: Maxwells

Dail reform and new politics started life on an old note last Thursday.

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The Ceann Comhairle, Sean O Fearghail of Fianna Fail, was elected under a system that is supposed to have heralded in an era of Dail reform.

Sean is a thoroughly decent man. He will probably make a good chair of the Dail. He is an immensely able and popular deputy. He has one problem: his election, the first flag of Dail reform, was a travesty of transparency.

No one has a bull's notion who voted for Sean. Dail reform has introduced the secret ballot to Dail proceedings. From now on, citizens will be unable to find out who their local TD supported for the chair of the Dail. Quite an innovation: keep the citizens in the dark.

Sean beat off challenges from Fine Gael's Andrew Doyle and Bernard Durkan, Sinn Fein's Caoimhghin O Caolain and Independent TD Maureen O'Sullivan. He was elected on transfers from across the board.

Puzzled eyebrows were raised after some pretty odd voting patterns emerged. What insiders call 'tactical voting' appears to have taken place. Did some Fine Gael or Labour TDs support the Fianna Fail candidate to remove him from the pitch and reduce Micheal Martin's army by one vote? How did O Fearghail score 56 votes, 12 more than the total number of 44 Fianna Fail TDs? Who did Labour vote for? Why did Independent Maureen O'Sullivan, widely tipped as favourite if TDs followed expected paths, score such a low vote? Were some TDs voting out of local self-interest to exclude constituency colleagues? TDs have a vested interest in ensuring that no rival in their own constituency is given the nod for Ceann Comhairle as the occupant is automatically re-elected next time round.

It looks as if all sorts of shenanigans went on behind the scenes to put Sean into the chair. This was Dail reform in action. It has facilitated secret deals outside public gaze. TDs can now choose a Ceann Comhairle of the Dail after consultations in smoke- filled rooms.

Post-election, Dail reform has suddenly become all the rage. On Thursday, the Dail unanimously passed a motion setting up an all-party committee to introduce Dail reform.

Such enthusiasm is welcome, but a bit of a surprise. It seems that politicians have suddenly realised a blinding truth. They believe that the message from the electorate is that the Dail is redundant. They are all in a rush, competing to be the loudest champions of Dail reform.

They have misread the runes. It is only a small part of the problem. It was Catherine Murphy, of the Social Democrats, who pointed out last week that we need far more than Dail reform. We need radical political reform.

Funnily enough, Dail reform hardly surfaced on the doorsteps during the election. Yet it is suddenly emerging as, supposedly, the most urgent problem facing the country. It is not. If a subcommittee can be set up to sort out Dail reform in jig time why can all parties not simultaneously construct a committee to sort out the housing, health and homeless problems? Important and all as Dail reform is, can it not take second place to homeless children in hotels? Simultaneously, why is there no parallel sub-committee sitting today on the curse of cronyism, or on the plight of people in mortgage arrears or negative equity?

The big parties are navel gazing. So obsessed are they about blaming each other for the dysfunctional state of the Dail, that they are prepared to put homelessness on the long finger. Their own housekeeping business has taken over from the crying needs of our hardest-hit citizens. We may have no Taoiseach, but we can surely tackle the emergency problems facing the State without one? The new sub-committee on the narrow topic of Dail reform will take up the time of only 14 TDs over the coming weeks. Most of the remaining 144 TDs will be sitting on their hands, watching the slow pace of government formation.

Nor is there much evidence of new politics in the match-making going on between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail. Last Tuesday, The Examiner broke a fresh story about imminent talks. Fine Gael, it insisted, is going to make a knock-out offer to Fianna Fail. Naive readers may have held their breath, expecting a policy change, a sudden Fine Gael concession to launch the mating dance, abandoning its US-style tax policy in exchange for higher public expenditure.

Not at all. The offer was historic, all right. According to The Examiner, Fine Gael will make a unique proposal to its civil war enemy. Micheal Martin, leader of a smaller party, is to be offered a rotating Taoiseach's role. He could share the top job with the Fine Gael leader. Furthermore, Fianna Fail could take half the Cabinet seats.

This was realpolitik Irish style. Policy was a sideshow. Cabinet seats are the business. If you want to seduce Fianna Fail, you offer them the jobs, the spoils of war. While the lofty debate over Dail reform occupies the public battlefield, in the background, the grubby share-out of jobs is on the table.

It will be interesting to see if Fianna Fail tells them to stuff their cabinet jobs this week.

The right response from any smaller party or group facing such superficial gifts is to resist them.

The manoeuvre is an old-fashioned power grab. If the Dail can set up a sub-committee to tackle Dail reform in the interregnum period, it can surely establish a similar group to address the crisis in mortgage arrears. Recommended measures could be introduced on day one of the new government. The absence of a Taoiseach and government should not mean that the Dail itself must be redundant. The new Dail could be at work already, setting up committees to prepare legislation to relieve the most urgent problems. Instead, it is twiddling its thumbs.

What about the victims of the banking collapse and the property frenzies? Today the Irish banking system remains in a state of crisis. Politicians are in denial. Loan arrears are falling, but far too slowly. We still have the highest percentage of impaired loans in Europe, nearly four times the numbers recorded on the continent. Irish families remain in insoluble difficulties, condemned to decades of debt, negative equity and abandoned by the government to crippling variable rate mortgages.

If the sub-committee on Dail reform is a workable template we should use it for the victims of Ireland's bankers. We cannot wait for the larger political parties or acting ministers to return from St Patrick's Day celebrations abroad, nor should we be delayed by politicians competing for prime seats for the march past the GPO at the Easter festivities. There is little point in remembering the Easter Rising against the 1916 government when we have no government at all in 2016.

Both the major parties are rattling sabres about another general election. One of the finest Dail speeches on Thursday was made by my colleague John Halligan. The Independent Alliance TD from Waterford told the raw truth: was anyone in the house, he asked, really suggesting that we could return to the people because TDs did not like the general election result or because it did not fit into Ireland's old-school political thinking?

Halligan is right. We should embrace, not denigrate, the citizens' verdict and the opportunities opening up. Tepid changes in the workings of the Dail are only an appetiser for the volcanic reform that the electorate has demanded. We had better deliver. In the words of former Labour Party leader, Pat Rabbitte, token Dail reform "butters no parsnips".

Sunday Independent

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