It's time our politicians showed proper respect for the House - and each other
Published 15/05/2015 | 02:30
Deputies enjoy the Leaders' Questions slot in the Dáil, but for the wrong reasons. When this procedure was introduced a few years ago, some thought it would improve the standard of debate and make it easier for opposition party leaders to extract information from the government of the day.
Instead, it has contributed to the debasement of the system. Deputies attend the Chamber in the hope of "a good row". Too often, they get what they wish for.
Mind you, they have little difficulty finding occasions for good rows in addition to Leaders' Questions. The Dáil descends into disorder with dismaying frequency, sometimes when discussing issues on which there is no disagreement - like their notorious fondness for long holidays.
But somehow, Leaders' Questions seems to attract the lightning with exceptional ease. Objection is raised to some fairly harmless remark. People raise their voices. Soon, it becomes impossible to hear what anyone says and the Ceann Comhairle is forced to suspend the sitting. After a while, they come back in, take up where they left off, or try to. Nothing of value emerges. Another sitting wasted.
On Wednesday, Taoiseach Enda Kenny confronted two representatives of the far left, Deputies Paul Murphy and Ruth Coppinger.
He told Deputy Murphy to "toddle along" to attend a briefing by representatives of Irish Water. Nowadays, almost any reference to Irish Water tends to annoy a great many people, and not just people with left-wing opinions. He would have done better not to say it.
Ms Coppinger, for her part, asked what was the point of Leaders' Questions. Mr Kenny replied: "It's to tell you where to go." Again, he would have done better to have left it unsaid. The Taoiseach, of all people, should be at pains to uphold the dignity of parliament.
The minor row blew over, as minor rows do. But Ms Coppinger had asked a very good question. Underneath that little squabble, and all the other little squabbles, lies something genuinely important and worrying.
The present Government, like most of our previous governments, came into office promising "openness, transparency and accountability". Again, like most of its predecessors, it failed to deliver worthwhile reform. Not all of this failure was the fault of the Government. At various stages in his colourful and distinguished career, Deputy Alan Shatter has fought and won several one-man campaigns. He holds the record for having had no fewer than three private members' bills enacted.
In recent times, independent deputies like Stephen Donnelly and Catherine Murphy have scored somewhat comparable successes. But Ms Murphy had to invoke the Freedom of Information procedure to get answers to her questions. It should have been possible for her to get the information she wanted merely by asking a Dáil question.
Few deputies seem to have the courage or the competence to put in the research necessary to challenge a government backed by a huge bureaucracy which has little interest in reform. They are overwhelmed by a system which makes them almost powerless.
Over the last few years - aided to some extent by the increase in the numbers of independent deputies - consciousness of the system's defects has increased.
However, demands for specific reforms are not always well judged. For example, they often feature proposals for the abolition of party whips. This is misguided. Whips are necessary for the conduct of the Dáil's business. A far greater threat to democratic procedures is the guillotine.
Most people are unaware that legislation - usually legislation brought in by the Government itself - is routinely guillotined. Important measures go through the Dáil after inadequate discussion, sometimes no discussion at all.
The subject has come up frequently during the long and stuttering (and uncompleted) debate on the future of the Seanad. Advocates of reform have proposed an enhancement of the Seanad's role in debating and amending legislation.
An excellent idea, provided that it does not take away from the primacy of the Dáil. But we still await the Government's proposals in the wake of its referendum defeat on the issue of abolition.
By contrast, the Government was quick to react to two proposals from the constitutional commission. We face two referendums, on same-sex marriage and on reducing the minimum age for the presidency to 21 from 35. We also face a by-election in Carlow-Kilkenny to fill the Dáil seat left vacant by the departure of Phil Hogan to Brussels.
The political world takes far more interest in the by-election than it does in the referendums or in parliamentary reform. Here we have the red meat of Irish politics.
Will a Fianna Fáil dynasty prevail? How will Lucinda Creighton's new party fare? Will the contest be so tight that it forces late-night recounts? Perhaps most to the point, will the results show a Fine Gael revival?
All great fun, and mostly harmless fun. And so different from the recent sensational - and from the Irish viewpoint, dangerous - general election results which have given our nearest neighbour a government composed of a single party with an overall House of Commons majority.
All the opinion polls got it wrong except for the exit poll which got it exactly right. And the speed with which we learned the outcome was almost as astounding as the results themselves. Since then, we have had plenty of time to reflect on the implications for Ireland.
David Cameron is committed to holding a referendum on European Union membership during the lifetime of the new parliament: probably in 2017 but possibly in 2016. If Britain leaves the EU, the implications for Ireland will be profound.
At best, there will be a period of great uncertainty. At worst, our economy will be damaged gravely and perhaps permanently. Pessimists already speculate about the possibility of Customs posts on the Northern Ireland border.
It is far too early to frighten ourselves into nightmares like that. It is not too early to make such preparations as we can for the worst scenario - and the many other scenarios that could make their appearance.
And it is not too early for a major Dáil debate. But what kind of debate? Will ministers and deputies behave with the necessary dignity? Will they cast aside the frivolity that characterises so much of our political system? Will they show respect for the magnitude of the issue - and for one another? In short, can the Government and the Dail rise to the occasion?