Tuesday 19 November 2019

Barrett should hold his tongue and reclaim office

Ceann Comhairle Sean Barrett
Ceann Comhairle Sean Barrett
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

If Ceann Comhairle Sean Barrett were a woman, his interview with RTE radio yesterday would be described as "shrill and emotional".

An outraged Mr Barrett was apoplectic at any insinuation from opposition TDs that he was unduly influenced by correspondence from former Justice Minister Alan Shatter when he ruled out a Dáil debate on the establishment of a Commission of Investigation into allegations of Garda malpractice.

"Attempts are being made to suggest I was influenced in some way in the performance of my duty, that's totally and utterly untrue," he said, his voice shaking with anger.

The Ceann Comhairle said he took the decision because Mr Shatter is taking a High Court case to overturn findings made against him in the Guerin Report, on which the inquiry is based, and he was concerned a debate could prejudice those proceedings.

In doing so, he exercised his discretion under an obscure standing order, 57, which, ironically, explicitly underscores the power of the Dáil to discuss matters which may be before the courts.

There are a number of exceptions, however, including 57(3), which states "a matter shall not be raised in such an overt manner so that it appears to be an attempt by the Dáil to encroach on the functions of the courts or a judicial tribunal".

The Opposition is correct to warn the use of this standing order sets a dangerous precedent. Mr Shatter's case will be heard before one High Court judge later this year. The chances of a Dáil debate prejudicing that action are so remote as to be virtually non-existent. Now, rightly or wrongly, the perception exists that legal letters from disgruntled TDs or citizens, who are suing the State, can be used to shut down debate in our national parliament.

Downplaying the significance of his ruling, Mr Barrett said the debate was only going to be of a "technical" nature, implying that it wasn't very important, but that spectacularly misses the point. The inquiry will be investigating very important issues about the administration of justice in this country and it is only right and proper that the Dáil - whose members, don't forget, represent the public - is given an opportunity to debate its terms of reference.

Regrettably, the net result of Mr Barrett's decision could be an avalanche of legal letters landing in the Ceann Comhairle's office whenever the Dáil attempts to set up any public inquiry.

A better option would have been to assert the primacy of parliament, go ahead with the debate and let Mr Shatter have his day in court if he wanted it.

To make matters even worse, Mr Barrett has reacted to legitimate criticism of his decision as if those critiques were personal attacks, telling RTE that it was "perfectly obvious" that Opposition TDs were trying to undermine him.

Consequently, a situation exists in which the Ceann Comhairle, who is supposed to be above politics and moderate Dáil debates in an impartial manner, has expressly stated that Opposition TDs are out to get him. Until he withdraws those remarks, those TDs will be able to claim that any future ruling made against them is motivated by bias.

While Mr Barrett has been quick to denounce political attacks levelled against him, he has given a number of interviews in recent weeks that have led to unseemly political jockeying. Last month, he seemed to indicate he would step down from his €157,000 position before the next election, leading to speculation that Labour TD Pat Rabbitte would take over. Mr Barrett has now rubbished those reports but it isn't the first time he has threatened to resign from politics. He didn't contest the 2002 election to allow, he said at the time, the next generation to take over.

His confidence in younger colleagues didn't last very long, because he opted to contest the 2007 election and has been in situ since. It's now time for Mr Barrett to make up his mind. If he wants to rejoin the political fray, and snipe at opponents, he should step down and join the backbenches. Otherwise, he needs to reclaim the objectivity of his office and learn when to hold his tongue.

Irish Independent

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