Friday 14 December 2018

Jobstown fallout another example of why rules on Dáil privilege are in need of reform

Paul Murphy pictured outside the court Photo: Collins Courts
Paul Murphy pictured outside the court Photo: Collins Courts
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

A class warfare portrayal of events is the least convincing element to the Jobstown protest and subsequent court case. What happened there was not class warfare. I grew up in a working-class community where the values of decency and courtesy were prized - they are not the preserve of those born into privilege.

A working-class community is no less likely to accept the importance of treating everyone with respect, whether or not you agree with their views. However, it suits Solidarity TD Paul Murphy to frame everything to do with Jobstown and its aftermath as a downtrodden sector of society versus a golden circle.

Maybe he believes that fanning the flames will deliver votes when a general election is called. But the class warfare rallying cry is manipulative and socially divisive.

We do have problems of social inequality - generational poverty, policy failures in relation to housing and healthcare, and barriers to women's health placed by oppressive abortion legislation. But to cite class warfare is simplistic.

Post-independence, Ireland no longer has a hereditary upper class. There is a plutocracy, I grant you, with most of its members non-resident for tax purposes. But the overwhelming majority of Irish people fall into the coping class category.

Currently, Mr Murphy is snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in the court of public opinion, with behaviour below the standard we are entitled to expect from a member of the national parliament.

Mr Murphy was acquitted of false imprisonment, and rightly so. He feels aggrieved at the gravity of the charge pressed against him and the heavy-handed way in which he was arrested, and rightly so. He questions the circumstances surrounding Garda evidence being at odds with video footage, and rightly so.

But as a public representative, he has an obligation to raise his objections in a mature and orderly way. Instead, there is a hysterical element to his outburst: making allegations about numerous gardaí lying on oath, and warning the Taoiseach he'll be sorry if he doesn't call a public inquiry. The implications are that social unrest will be unleashed.

His comments, made under privilege in the Dáil chamber, have been referred to a cross-party committee on procedures to establish whether he overstepped the boundaries of parliamentary privilege.

In a tit-for-tat response, he has made a formal complaint to Oireachtas officials against a sizeable chunk of the Cabinet, saying he was defamed during an adversarial debate. The Taoiseach, three senior ministers and a former junior minister, all members of Fine Gael, are accused by Mr Murphy of breaking Dáil rules in their comments about the intimidation experienced by Joan Burton and her aide Karen O'Connell.

However, Mr Murphy cannot run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. On the one hand, he regards himself as entitled to use Dáil privilege to accuse gardaí of "an agreement to commit perjury". On the other hand, he rejects his colleagues' right to speak freely under Dáil privilege.

True leadership on behalf of his community would be an acknowledgement in the Dáil that the Jobstown demonstration lost its way, and that the two women were treated despicably. Not because class warfare erupted, but because civilised standards common to all of us were set aside, for a time.

Leo Varadkar rose in my estimation when he told Mr Murphy he owed the women an apology. During a heated exchange, Mr Varadkar accused the Dublin South West TD of being "quite threatening" in his contributions in the Dáil, telling him: "You are not a victim here. You are not the victim of any conspiracy. You got a fair trial. You were acquitted but that doesn't mean your behaviour was right." I suspect those words struck a chord with many citizens.

It is entirely possible Mr Murphy is indifferent about whether or not he abused Dáil privilege during the exchanges. After all, there are no real repercussions for doing so - a slapped wrist is the penalty.

Under the Constitution, TDs and senators have legal immunity from being sued for defamation because of any speech made in the Dáil chamber or at a committee meeting. This is an important democratic right.

But deputies have an obligation not to abuse privilege, and if they are found to have done so they must be held accountable. Simply telling them they did wrong, if that is what the cross-party committee decides, is inadequate. It means abuse of privilege is frowned on in name only.

The Oireachtas needs to consider a new set of sanctions such as fines, suspensions (which would affect Dáil votes) or withdrawal of named privileges. Not because of Mr Murphy's allegations, but because a number of recent cases raise questions about whether there is an increasing tendency to play fast and loose with privilege. Denis O'Brien lost a court case on this front a few months ago.

Legitimate use of parliamentary privilege by politicians is a right in many countries, and ought to be protected in the interests of democracy. But the current system to ensure it is used correctly, sparingly and for the public benefit, is unfit for purpose, and in need of reform.

Imposing a penalty for improper use is not, inherently, a curtailment of democracy. It is intended to protect the rights of citizens, who may be named in the chamber without substantial evidence to back allegations against them.

Even if claims are disproven later, mud sticks and someone's reputation may be damaged. Such behaviour fosters cynicism towards politicians, with some of them acting as if they believe themselves to be above the law.

Would a TD be so quick to ventilate allegations without thorough fact-checking if there were repercussions? Equally, a fine will not deter a TD who is genuine about the public interest.

Clare Daly and Mick Wallace have used Dáil privilege for the benefit of society, airing allegations of Garda malpractice reported to them by whistleblowers Maurice McCabe and John Wilson. Constitutional privilege was well used there.

As for Mr Murphy's call for a public inquiry, I listened with interest to Professor David Farrell, of UCD's School of Politics and International Relations, on RTÉ'S 'Morning Ireland' earlier in the week.

He said GSOC, the Garda Ombudsman, was an appropriate route for a complaint rather than using parliamentary privilege. A public inquiry appears to be the default response but other avenues are available and should be exhausted first, he noted.

However, demanding - and being refused - a public inquiry fuels the class warfare narrative.

Irish Independent

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