Sunday 25 March 2018

Barrett attacks plan to elect Ceann Comhairle by secret ballot

Sean Barrett insists election of Dail chairman should not be done under a veil of secrecy

Sean Barrett. Photo: Tom Burke
Sean Barrett. Photo: Tom Burke
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

Ceann Comhairle Sean Barrett has launched a scathing attack on the Government's plan to elect the chairman of the next Dail by secret ballot.

On the eve of his retirement from the office, Mr Barrett insisted the position should be voted on in public and not behind a veil of secrecy as was decided by Taoiseach Enda Kenny in the dying days of the Dail.

In an exclusive interview with the Sunday Independent, the outgoing Ceann Comhairle said: "I wasn't elected by that system, therefore I feel you can do the job without having to go through all this secrecy.

"I would hate to think, but maybe I'm fooling myself, that at the end of five years people would say 'Sean Barrett was biased'.

"Maybe I'm old-fashioned but the election of the Ceann Comhairle was always done in the open. Why not let us all walk up the stairs (of the Dail chamber) and vote for x or y, or whoever," he added.

When announcing the secret ballot vote, which was recommended by the Constitutional Convention, the Taoiseach said the Ceann Comhairle's office would "now be more independent of the Government". It was among a series of Dail reforms the Coalition introduced in the final weeks of its terms in office.

Mr Barrett is also critical of the barrage of legislation introduced in the last Dail term, which resulted in the Government regularly guillotining bills. "I don't see why we have to rush to get in legislation, it should be legislation when it's necessary."

"It's like a straight banana - some guy gets an idea that a banana should be straight, you get all this type of stuff. And stuff coming in from Europe," he added.

Mr Barrett's comments come as he prepares to return to Fine Gael after serving as Ceann Comhairle for the last five years.

The Dun Laoghaire politician, who is the only TD who does not have to contest his seat, said he would serve out a full term as long as "God spares" him and he remains in good health.

He is not hopeful of being given a ministry if Fine Gael is elected to government but is hoping to be appointed to "a few" Oireachtas committees.

Mr Barrett is open to doing business with Fianna Fail after the election and forming a 'grand coalition' if that's what the voters decide.

"If the Dail decides that's the way it's going to be - fine by me. You are going to have to have some agreements put down on paper and you are going to have to have a programme for government," he said.

However, he points to the 1987 'Tallaght Strategy', which saw Fine Gael prop up a Fianna Fail government in the national interest by not opposing economic legislation in the Dail.

Mr Barrett does not believe the public rewarded Fine Gael for making the political sacrifice and pointed out that it was another seven years before the party entered government.

"I don't know whether our sacrifice, if you call it that, did a great deal of good for the country or didn't," he added.

Overall, he does not believe the polls, which show a Fine Gael/Fianna Fail government is the most likely outcome of the election.

"The polls would tell you that is the case at the moment, but I genuinely don't think those polls are right. I think the present Government will do better than the polls are saying, but I don't think they will have the same majority," he said.

Mr Barrett was at the centre of several high-profile controversies during his time in the Ceann Comhairle's chair - including accusations he showed favour to Justice Minister Alan Shatter and Sinn Fein's bizarre Dail sit-in protest.

He is quick to dismiss theatrics of the chamber, saying he has seen it all before during his 34 years in national politics. But he does point to the "contradictions" in Sinn Fein's stance as the so-called 32-county party.

"I'm amazed by the way they deal with issues in the North in terms of day-to-day policies and then they do the direct opposite down here and yet they have a 32-county structure," he said.

Mr Barrett warned that more should be done to attract young people to politics as many of those in the last Dail could earn far more if they opted to work in the private sector.

"There is a very good crop of people and their potential earnings wise and professional wise, if they weren't involved in politics, would be much higher," he said.

"What they are taking home net, they would easily earn in another field. I think it's important that you keep getting good people coming in and committed people and there is no other job in the world that you don't know after, in this case five years, if you will have a job the following day," he added.

He has outlined proposals for his predecessor which he would like to see implemented by the next government, including holding Oireachtas committee hearings on separate days to Dail sitting days.

This would allow members concentrate on committee work without being distracted by Dail votes.

Mr Barrett also urged the next Ceann Comhairle to continue the National Bravery Awards, which he introduced during his term, and also promote the North South Inter Parliamentary Association, which he played a central role in establishing.

Sunday Independent

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