Saturday 22 October 2016

Irish people deserve better than a Dail paralysed by fear

We were promised a new collaborative politics after the election - what we have got is delay, dysfunction and division, writes Alan Kelly

Alan Kelly

Published 24/07/2016 | 02:30

To paraphrase Seamus Heaney, the overriding feeling in Leinster House these days is 'whatever you do, do nothing'. Photo: Maxwells
To paraphrase Seamus Heaney, the overriding feeling in Leinster House these days is 'whatever you do, do nothing'. Photo: Maxwells

New politics? If this is new politics then give me old politics any day. In fact just give me politics. To paraphrase Seamus Heaney, the overriding feeling in Leinster House these days is 'whatever you do, do nothing'. It is now five months since the General Election. TDs are elected to do a number of jobs as public representatives, but our main job is as legislators. We are elected to pass laws and ensure good governance of the country through those laws.

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Since February this has not been happening. Readers may be astonished to learn that this year only four pieces of legislation have been passed and signed into law by our President, and all four were enacted prior to the General Election. To put this in context, the number of Acts passed last year totalled 66. Yet despite this legislative inertia, the Government has decided to shut down the Dail until the end of September.

No one - including me - has any problem with a summer holiday shutdown, yet surely this should have been curtailed this year given the long period during which the country was without a government. Consideration should be given to the Dail resuming earlier in September this year to resolve the legislative log jam, especially as the budgetary process will take up the majority of our time on our return.

Government legislation is being allocated very little time in the Dail and Seanad. In fact the opposition is far more active in this regard. Incredibly, the Chief Whip recently could not even provide a quorum of members in the Dail. The Oireachtas committee system is not functioning properly - no Joint Oireachtas Committees has even started operation.

Even the hugely important Public Accounts Committee (which is operating and of which I am the vice chair) is treading carefully given the ongoing analysis elsewhere of its predecessor.

On top of the inertia in the Dail we have also seen the sudden disappearance of the supposed new politics within the Government.

For the first time in the history of the State, collective Cabinet responsibility has disappeared thanks to Minister Shane Ross's humiliation of the Taoiseach on the recent Abortion Bill vote. This is the same Mr Ross who has made a career out of deriding crony political appointments, but was happy to sit back at Cabinet and allow the appointment of the Taoiseach's adviser, Andrew McDowell, to a €250,000-a-year job at the European Investment Bank.

In my time as a legislator in the Dail, Seanad and European Parliament I have never encountered such lack of initiative and action in terms of law-making. It is for the Government to lead in ordering the business of the Dail, yet it seems incapable of bringing forward proposals or showing initiatives in a whole range of policy areas.

Take for example the area of higher education. There are a number of key issues that need to be urgently addressed, such as the development of technological universities, the absence of affordable student accommodation, and the critical funding crisis that is affecting universities and colleges across the country.

We know the importance of higher education in Ireland, and we know the central role that it plays in attracting high-skilled well-paid jobs. So what is the new Government doing? Absolutely nothing.

Education is just one example. Across ministries and government departments there is very little action, either legislative or administrative. Recent answers to Dail questions show that there is a backlog of EU directives awaiting transposition and implementation - directives that in many cases will make life better for individuals and businesses in Ireland.

From talking to senior civil servants in recent weeks it appears that paralysis has set in across the board and no new policy initiatives are being taken. Even the much vaunted housing policy unveiled by Minster Simon Coveney last week is nothing more than a reconfiguration and repackaging of the plans of the previous government. Old dressed-up as new, with a fancy video to kick off Mr Coveney's leadership challenge.

Michael Noonan holds the keys to solving the housing issue far more than Simon Coveney. He has the levers to deal with construction costs, affordability measures and first-time buyers, but he won't come onto the pitch until it's with his ball and it's his time to play. Something I'm very familiar with.

Why the inertia? Why the fear - bordering on terror - to legislate? Why does the Government appear to want to avoid any engagement with substantive decision-making? Why do they seem like slaves to the new political system? The answer is, of course, the Dail arithmetic. The answer is, of course, Fianna Fail.

The Taoiseach and his ministers are now nothing more than puppets with the strings being pulled by Micheal Martin. Government ministers are now so afraid of doing anything that would offend Fianna Fail that they would rather do nothing.

What we have now is a minority government propped up by disparate Independents with the stabilisers provided by Micheal Martin and Fianna Fail. It is paralysed by fear and uncertainty, and more recently by questions over the future of the Taoiseach.

The people were promised new politics, but instead they have been given a government stuck in neutral and unable to move forward on any area. This Government is actually slave to the supposed new politics. It's not working. Politics is failing. The Irish people deserve better than this.

Alan Kelly is a Labour TD representing Tipperary

Sunday Independent

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