Thursday 20 June 2019

Gene Kerrigan: It's now a standing, thinking, praying Dail

As Enda breaks a new record, the Dail drifts further from relevance to its people, writes Gene Kerrigan

Illustration by Tom Halliday
Illustration by Tom Halliday
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

Yesterday, Enda Kenny's second government was a year in office. And, about two weeks ago, Enda finally managed to beat John A Costello's record and become the longest-serving Fine Gael Taoiseach.

This was a record that no one knew existed until Enda set his heart on breaking it.

As achievements go - well... let me just suggest that somewhere out there some poor sod holds the record for walking the length of O'Connell Street without once stepping on a crack in the pavement. Some people find comfort in such things.

Anyway, I felt obliged to mark this milestone. So, I made some notes on recent developments and devoted several of my dwindling stock of hours on this earth to watching Dail proceedings.

Not an enjoyable task, but it did tell us something of the price we've all paid for Enda's reign.

In the bad old days you had to actually sit on the Press Gallery to follow proceedings. These days, you can watch it all on Oireachtas TV.

Let us note that the Dail sat last week as scheduled. That's something that, under the current regime, cannot be taken for granted. For reasons that will become apparent, few take the Dail seriously any more.

And no one takes it less seriously than some of those elected to it. On December 14, 2015, junior minister Ann Phelan held the fort alone during significant legislation, as no one else turned up. Christmas was coming and many TDs had presents to buy.

Just over a month later, on January 27, after a four-week Christmas break, only eight TDs turned up when the Dail began. Eventually, sufficient TDs were rounded up to meet the quorum of 20.

Once the quorum count is over, TDs usually bugger off immediately.

(The video of that January 27 evacuation is something to see - it's like they got a bomb warning. Mind you, a Fianna Fail deputy was about to speak, which might explain the rush.)

For one vote in that period, a mere 47 TDs bothered to show up, just 28pc of the total.

Six months later, on July 8, the Dail had to wait 39 minutes before a quorum could be found.

On that occasion, the person responsible for arranging Dail business, Chief Whip Regina Doherty, was on local radio explaining to her constituents her views on a change of Fine Gael leadership.

TDs tell you how they work hard - but their legislative function is measurable, and it sucks.

Why do so many TDs appear to hold parliament in such low regard? It could be they take their cue from the top.

In theory, the Dail initiates, discusses and passes legislation. And the Cabinet ensures legislation is implemented.

In practice, the Cabinet comes up with legislation, often having heard from lobbyists.

This is run through the Dail - there's no need for most TDs to read it, let alone initiate or discuss it. Should a TD refuse to vote as instructed, they may be kicked out of the party.

They may - as happened to Lucinda Creighton - be effectively driven out of politics. I don't share Creighton's views on most things, but when party discipline forces TDs to vote against their beliefs, on threat of political evisceration, democracy is no longer a word that applies.

The marginalisation of parliament has been effected by successive governments. The 2011-2016 FG/Labour government made things worse, creating a four-person committee, the Economic Management Council, that told the Cabinet what to do.

Last week, it appeared our Government voted at the UN to endorse Saudi Arabia as a champion of women's rights.

The row that followed suggests that the centralisation of power has got worse. Information on how Ireland voted at the UN was withheld not just from the Dail but from members of Cabinet.

The Dail did not democratically decide on this centralisation of power. It was a silent coup, engineered by a small layer of self-confident autocrats. It could not have happened without the timidity of the Dail and the indifference of the officer class of the political media.

After the 2016 election, workable government required an FG/FF coalition - much as some of us dread such a regime. However, the two right wing parties decided that would allow the emergence of a credible alternative grouping. Instead, they spent two months cobbling together a shaky minority government, so they can dominate both government and opposition.

This has ensured an appalling work rate. Compared with the first year of the first Enda Kenny government, this one has signed only half the number of Bills into law. In historical comparison, it barely exists as a parliament.

Watching the Dail these days, "debate" seems to consist of one politician reading aloud a prepared statement and another reading aloud a prepared reply.

I watched an Oireachtas Committee looking into financial carry-on at Templemore and saw the Garda top brass unwind.

At Leaders' Questions a matter came up that was far more serious even than that.

Prime Time had presented shocking evidence about the murder of Garda Tony Golden in October 2015. He was shot dead while protecting a woman from her abuser. In the Dail last week, Gerry Adams raised the issue.

Those of us shocked by Prime Time were more shocked to discover that this evidence - to do with the killer's previous engagement with the force - had been known immediately after the murder.

In October 2015, Adams raised the matter with the Taoiseach, privately. Now, he publicly asked the Taoiseach to set up an inquiry.

Kenny's reply stated, in long and unnecessary detail, the widely known facts of the case. It did not address the need for an inquiry. Such time wasting is never seemly. Given this involved the shooting dead of a garda, it was singularly inappropriate.

This was followed by a plea from Kenny that Garda and GSOC "investigations" should be allowed play out first. Real world knowledge of both such procedures - gardai investigating gardai, and GSOC's long and too often ineffective inquiries - suggest this isn't enough. It's already 18 months since the killing.

If the Dail had shoulders you might have seen them shrug.

Dail timidity is such that it's unthinkable that an FG or FF TD would step out of line, however grave the matter.

TDs found an issue last week on which they could heartily assert the courage of their convictions.

Our history tells us that mixing church and state has had poisonous consequences. There's now a mood to separate them decisively, without disrespect to either. As part of this, there was a motion down last week to end the practice of starting Dail proceedings with a prayer. It should have been a simple vote: keep it or end it.

So dysfunctional is the Dail that this quickly became four separate motions.

To simply end the prayer.

Or, to replace it with 30 seconds of silent reflection.

Or, to replace it with 60 seconds of silent reflection.

Or, to keep the prayer and add 30 seconds of silent reflection at the end.

The Dail voted down the first three, and agreed to the last. Standing orders have been changed, to make it mandatory for TDs to stand for the prayer - and continue standing for 30 seconds of mandatory reflection. That's 30 seconds thinking per day. I know some FG and FF lads who don't do that much thinking in the average year. They're going to wind up with headaches, some of them.

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