Friday 27 April 2018

Ceann Comhairle calls for new Leinster House roles

Ceann Comhairle Sean Barrett
Ceann Comhairle Sean Barrett
Fionnan Sheahan

Fionnan Sheahan

The chairman of the Dail, Ceann Comhairle Sean Barrett, says two senior civil servants are needed to run Leinster House as the job is too complex for just one position.

Mr Barrett is setting out his stall as the Government prepares to pass legislation to allow for the appointment of a new Oireachtas secretary general, known as the Clerk of the Dail.

The Ceann Comhairle told the Sunday Independent he believes the post should be divided into two roles, with the first in charge of the legislative and parliamentary affairs of the Oireachtas and the second responsible for the operation and finances of Leinster House.

"The traditional secretary general that operates in other government departments isn't the most suitable arrangement for the Houses of the Oireachtas. There are two distinct roles here," he said.

Mr Barrett said the Clerk of the Dail is a very important post in the political process, while a chief executive is also needed for the Houses of the Oireachtas, which have a budget allocation of €340m over three years.

"My recommendation would be you have a Clerk of the Dail and a chief executive officer," he said.

The position of Clerk of the Dail has been vacant for the past year following the retirement of the previous officeholder, Kieran Coughlan.

Mr Barrett said the post has been filled on an interim basis by two civil servants at Assistant Secretary General level.

"It has run very efficiently in the last 12 months," he said.

The Ceann Comhairle said the publication of the Government's legislation, which envisages one position, "doesn't change my view".

"It's the independence of parliament but I fully respect the role of Government. I do stress there should always be full and open competition in filling any position," he said.

The difference of views between Mr Barrett and the Government has proven controversial in political circles. But Mr Barrett said he will fully co-operate with the decision of the Dail and Seanad, which will pass the legislation.

"My personal reputation means more to me than what job I have. At the end of the day, legislation is required, the Dail and Seanad will decide, and I will honour it.

"I have made my views known in the proper way. I went through the procedures. That's where it sits," he said.

Mr Barrett's case is that there are two very different sets of skills now required to run a modern parliament. He believes a clerk is needed to operate the legislative functions of the Oireachtas. This position also includes duties such as the Registrar of Political Parties, membership of the Standards In Public Office Commission and membership of the Boundary Commission - all politically sensitive areas.

But there is also the job of managing the finances and services of Leinster House, including the staff, offices, restaurants and bars.

Mr Barrett has written to both Taoiseach Enda Kenny and the Oireachtas committee charged with examining the legislation needed for the appointment.

Mr Kenny wrote back to the Ceann Comhairle saying he respected his independence and the proper fashion with which he discharged his constitutional responsibility.

"I share your concerns that we have the best possible structures in place to ensure the smooth and efficient running of parliament, that the best supports are available to members and that we would promote and uphold the independence of our national parliament," Mr Kenny said.

"This has been the motivation behind a series of reforms which have been implemented in the Oireachtas since you and I assumed our respective offices."

Nonetheless, the Government is sticking to its view that there will be just one position and it won't be divided.

Mr Barrett also wrote to the Oireachtas Finance Committee, in response to its request for submissions on the new legislation.

The Ceann Comhairle set out his arguments for the division of responsibilities.

"Having completed three years as Ceann Comhairle, and also as chairman of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, I am satisfied that the senior management structure for the running of the Houses of the Oireachtas should not be based on a similar structure to that of a government department. It should be based on the best practice for the most efficient management of two chambers, numerous committees, and most of all, the members elected to both Houses," he said.

"I believe that the previous position of Secretary General should be divided, and replaced by the Clerk of the Dail, Clerk of the Seanad and CEO/Financial Director," he said.

Mr Barrett also set out the chain of command he would like to see put in place.

"I believe that the appointments should be for a fixed term, e.g. 10 years maximum, and also, as both the Clerk of the Dail and the Financial Director are answerable to the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, they should not, in my opinion, be members of the Commission," he said.

The Houses of the Oireachtas (Amendment) Bill 2014 will begin its passage through the Dail and Seanad next month. The law is expected to be passed by the end of the year with the new Clerk of the Dail appointed in 2015.

Sunday Independent

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