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Haughey lives again as rising hero (then villain) in this cast of Dail stars

"YOU are only a gutty." "Shut up, you Donegal East smuggler." "You big, fat-headed gobbaloon... I was not born in the bog like you were, I was reared."

Dail Eireann is Ireland's premier debating chamber, a place where great political leaders can make history through the power of their words. It is also a place where various crooks and spoofers over the years have tried in vain to talk themselves out of trouble.

In his highly entertaining new book, Standing By The Republic, John Drennan tells the stories behind 50 Dail debates that helped to shape the nation -- taking in the good, the bad and an awful lot of ugliness.

Reading over some of the parliamentary battles quoted here, it's hard to know whether to laugh or cry. When an Independent TD in 1954 raised the case of a Christian Brother teacher who had broken a child's arm, his colleagues fell over themselves to insist that it must be an isolated incident.

As late as 1967, some politicians were outraged by an English schoolbook that featured stories with the words 'bastard' and 'bugger'.

The 1972 debate over whether or not should Ireland should join the EEC descended into farce, with the claim that we might not be able to compete with Europeans, who got up earlier in the morning.

A 1986 discussion of the divorce referendum produced some classic contributions, including FF's Michael Woods' warning that it would be "a constitutional Frankenstein".

Condoms

One man dominates the book, just as he dominated Irish politics for so long. As Minister for Finance in 1967, Charles Haughey solemnly lectured the Dail on how important it was for everybody to pay their taxes.

In 1979, he was the Minister for Health who made condoms available to people with a medical prescription -- coining the phrase "an Irish solution to an Irish problem."

Haughey's election as Taoiseach later that year produced one of the most electrifying moments the Dail has ever seen. Instead of offering the traditional congratulations, FG leader Garret FitzGerald declared that his great rival had "a flawed pedigree" and was morally unfit to hold the highest office in the land. Looking back, it is easy to see what Garret meant -- but with Charlie's elderly mother sitting in the public gallery, his speech was widely condemned as being in poor taste.

By 1990, Haughey's scandalous past was beginning to catch up with him. After the Taoiseach was forced to sack his old friend Brian Lenihan during the presidential election, Labour leader Dick Spring delivered a thundering Dail address that made Garret's look positively mild.

"This debate essentially is about the evil spirit that controls one political party in this Republic... the cancer that is eating away at our body politic and the virus that has caused that cancer: An Taoiseach, Charles J Haughey." The Bertie Ahern era also delivered some memorable Dail moments. Foreign Affairs Minister Ray Burke declared in 1997 that he was "drawing a line in the sand" over allegations of corruption, but it turned out to be quicksand and a few days later Rambo had resigned. Charlie McCreevy once told the House with a straight face, "Dick Spring", then went on to prove it with his famous philosophy, "When I have it, I spend it."

Back in 1992, the young Brian Cowen was identified by ex-FG leader Alan Dukes as "the chief vulgarian of the FF backbenchers". In fact, it was Biffo's colourful Dail performances that marked him out as a future Taoiseach. He once roared across the floor: "The political philosophy of FF goes much deeper than the length of a dipstick in the petrol tank of a State car." Sadly, Cowen's brief reign of error turned out to be historic for all the wrong reasons. Thankfully, Drennan's book is not just a rogues' gallery. It also features Dail speeches by politicians who really did do the State some service, such as Taoiseach Sean Lemass explaining his economic revolution in the 1960s.

Des O'Malley provided the title when he declared, "I stand by the Republic" and refused to oppose a 1985 Contraception Bill, even though it meant he would be thrown out of Fianna Fail for "conduct unbecoming". Most recently, Enda Kenny showed his inner steel when he split Sinn Fein over an IRA bank robbery.

Dail Eireann often seems like a theatre of the absurd. John Drennan's witty and insightful book shows that on its day, our national parliament can still be the best show in town.

Standing by the Republic: 50 Dail Debates That Shaped The Nation by John Drennan is published by Gill & Macmillan, €19.99


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