The Dáil and Seanad will have to sit in the Convention Centre at a cost of €50,000 per day because it would be unconstitutional to have virtual sittings during the coronavirus restrictions, TDs have been told.
Taxpayers will foot the bill for TDs and senators moving to the 8,000-seater event and concert venue on Dublin's North Wall Quay after Oireachtas authorities were told virtual sittings, where some politicians would appear via video link, would be unconstitutional because they would not be covered by parliamentary privilege.
Several Dáil sittings of 50 or fewer TDs have taken place in Leinster House in recent weeks. However, all 160 TDs will have to be present for the vote to elect a new Taoiseach and, it has now emerged, for sittings on budget matters and possible legislative changes in the coming months.
Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl said it was expected there would be a number of sittings in the Convention Centre as long as social distancing was in place. The Seanad will also use the venue when it is fully constituted.
A number of TDs have questioned the Dáil Business Committee's decision to approve the plan in recent weeks.
Mr Ó Fearghaíl acknowledged to the Irish Independent there was a "significant cost" involved. "It's a huge cost, but there is a cost involved in every sitting in Leinster House as well," he said.
While the Oireachtas has said there is no cost for hiring the Convention Centre, there will be an initial €110,000 outlay to equip its auditorium with microphones as well as broadcasting costs.
Each sitting day will then cost around €50,000 raising the prospect of a substantial bill if the Dáil sits there several times this year.
In an email to Fianna Fáil TD James Lawless last Friday, the Ceann Comhairle ruled out virtual sittings, saying: "The advice is that the virtual sitting facilitated by the IT system would be radically different to the type of parliamentary assembly authorised by the Constitution."
Mr Ó Fearghaíl said the advice from a senior counsel was that politicians would not "benefit from immunities in respect of utterances" outside of Leinster House.
"Mindful of the need for social distancing at present, the Business Committee has approved that the Dáil will sit in the Convention Centre Dublin when there is a need for all 160 members to be present, such as for the nomination of Taoiseach and members of the Cabinet, estimates, legislation, etc," he said in his email.
Mr Lawless said the Dáil should be able to pass legislation or update standing orders to get around the constitutional issues. "I think a hybrid model, with some members present, and others participating online, may cover all bases and it may allow us to save significant, unnecessary costs."
Fianna Fáil TD Marc MacSharry said: "I am not convinced the strategy is necessary or in the best interests of limited taxpayer resources."
He said voting and speaking times could be staggered to limit the numbers in the Dáil at any one time.
A Fine Gael source questioned why the Dáil could not sit in Dublin Castle, and said the decision would have to be "revisited".
Mr Ó Fearghaíl pointed out that the decision to locate to the Convention Centre was approved by the Business Committee, which has representatives from all parties.
The UK parliament will hold a partially virtual sitting this week, with up to 50 MPs in the Commons and 120 online via Zoom. The European Parliament has allowed MEPs to vote via email and remote voting procedures are in place in Spain and Romania with other EU countries examining it.