John O'Brennan: 'Kerry deputy's committee role proves we don't take European affairs half as seriously as we should'
The revelation that Michael Healy-Rae missed the crucial Oireachtas addresses on Brexit by Michel Barnier and Jean-Claude Juncker may not surprise some. After all, Mr Healy-Rae made his reputation as an avowed localist, determined to put constituents first.
But the idea that the chairman of the European Affairs Committee would be absent for the addresses is scarcely believable. Mr Barnier, Mr Juncker and Donald Tusk put "Ireland first" in the Brexit talks. Mr Healy-Rae appears to have put "Kerry first" in choosing, for example, to attend a funeral over being in the Dáil for these crucial proceedings.
Why does this matter? Mr Healy-Rae is chairman of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs. To many, Mr Healy-Rae's appointment in 2016 was inexplicable. After all, he had never demonstrated interest in EU issues.
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Mr Healy-Rae's appointment was an indication of just how unserious the Oireachtas is about the European Union.
In most other member states, the EU affairs committee of the national parliament is a hugely important committee. Recent research shows that the Oireachtas lags behind the most recent entrants from Central and Eastern Europe for engaging with EU affairs.
Of the current committee of seven TDs and four senators, I count only one member - at a stretch, two - who is actually serious about EU issues. Some are almost laughably ill-suited to the role. Has anybody ever heard TD Mattie McGrath expound on an EU issue, other than demands for more EU funds to flow to Tipperary?
Over the years, the committee has been home to a succession of windbags who gabbed about Europe, went off on "jollies" to "investigate" how other states deal with EU affairs, and then failed to implement any measures to help the Oireachtas scrutinise what our government does in Brussels.
It also hasn't a single female representative, the only Oireachtas committee, in fact, without one. Many pointed out how unacceptable this was in 2016. Nothing has changed.
I have given evidence to the committee on a number of occasions, with only a handful of deputies present. Once, I was asked a question by a member who got up and left without waiting to hear the answer. They were clearly there to read the question into the record to give the impression they were present and engaged. This isn't unusual.
Ireland lags far behind Denmark, whose government is constitutionally obliged to take instruction from the EU affairs committee of its parliament when it negotiates with EU partners. Danish MPs have an input into EU policy their Irish counterparts can only dream about. In Germany, the government must ask the Bundestag budget committee before it agrees to any future bailout decisions at EU level.
The reasons cited for the absence of the Oireachtas from European affairs are varied. The clientelist nature of the Irish political system offers one explanation. TDs are too good at representing their constituents, often on trivial matters, and relatively ineffective at or inattentive to legislating and exercising oversight and scrutiny of executive action. The Healy-Raes are exemplary in this regard: obsessive about "managing the constituency" and dismissive of "big picture" politics and public policy.
Intra-party competition is also cited as a barrier. TDs say that if they engage deeply with foreign policy issues, they run the risk of losing their seat, often to a rival who is more attentive to the constituency.
Our parties also rely on the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to do the heavy lifting on EU issues. But there has to be a role for our parliament in engaging with EU affairs. Much of the legislation that goes on our statue books originates in the EU policy sphere.
Michael Healy-Rae is not serious about his job chairing the European Affairs Committee, and the committee, as it is currently constituted, is not fit for purpose. The experience of our neighbour shows us what can happen if a country's political representatives go awol from Europe. If Brexit has taught us anything, it is that we cannot go down that path.
John O' Brennan is Jean Monnet Professor of European Integration at Maynooth University and director of the Maynooth Centre for European and Eurasian Studies