Tuesday 20 March 2018

Liz O'Donnell: Why it is so vital that we protect Dail dignity

Liz O'Donnell

Last week, thanks to a timely inquiry from Fianna Fail TD Michael McGrath, the gobsmacking salaries of top IBRC bankers were revealed. It was a useful reminder of the understated power of the parliamentary question. Too often the unintelligible and noisy exchanges that pass for Dail debate can eclipse the forensic work of Opposition deputies in holding the Government of the day to account.

In a democracy, a weak Opposition is just as dangerous as a bad Government. It has taken Fianna Fail well over a year to recover from its electoral mauling of 2011. But it looks like they are getting their act together now. Meanwhile, Sinn Fein has dined out on FF's discomfort and loss of mojo with its disciplined new deputies often taking on the role of main Opposition party. There is an art and skill involved in the role of Opposition. It goes way beyond scenes of baying deputies and an exasperated Ceann Comhairle trying to keep order.

Every week hundreds of parliamentary questions (PQs) are tabled to ministers by Opposition deputies seeking information, challenging facts and forcing the various departments to account for their areas of responsibility. Although all on the Dail record, this vital dialogue is for the most part under the public radar. Large numbers of civil servants are deployed to do little else but draft these replies, while the Ceann Comhairle's office oversees the process and sometimes mediates between the TD and the department being questioned.

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