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Dail holiday can only benefit all sides

DAIL Eireann took a break this week for Easter recess. It is set to return on April 18. Cue a hue and cry from Opposition TDs and assorted political hacks demanding that the Dail return sooner or sit longer or whatever.

The protests are not only regular and predictable, they're also pointless. These sham battles seem to be based on the notion that the more the Dail sits, the better. Really?

It is hard to sustain that argument when you look at the Household Charge fiasco.

In its recent annual report the Government commends itself for increasing the number of sitting days, saying that the Dail sat for about 127 days, roughly 36/37 weeks, in its first year.

According to the Government's calculations this is a 44pc increase on the number of sitting days in the first year of the previous Dail (2007/08).

A major achievement you'd think. Though not quite as impressive when compared with the years 2008/09 and 2009/10 when the Dail actually sat for 35 weeks a year. But what's a week or two between sworn enemies?

It is the old public sector problem: measuring inputs, not outcomes. Successive governments have been guilty of it. The Government's legislative programme should be driven by the number of pieces of legislation it wishes to pass into law, not by a need to produce bits of legislation to fill up some allotted time slot.

TDs should not be apologising for the Dail not sitting over the next three weeks. Yes, various Oireachtas committees will be sitting -- but something else should also be happening.

Politicians and their policy advisers should be doing something they rarely get to do: think and prepare.

There is a story about a minister walking along a corridor in his department when he spies a senior policy maker sitting back with his feet up on the desk. "Have you no work to do?" asks the minister, "I have..." comes the reply "I am doing it now, I'm thinking".

These short breaks in sittings afford ministers and senior officials time and space away from debates, motions and parliamentary questions to focus on other matters. Central to this is standing back and taking stock of where they are.

When the Dail is sitting, a surprising amount of time in a Government department can be taken up in answering TDs' questions, particularly when its that minister's turn at oral PQs.

Parliamentary accountability and scrutiny is an essential part of the democratic process, but you also need time to go and effectively do all those things that the parliament will subsequently want to scrutinise.

But if the need for this "thinking" time is important for ministers and officials is it absolutely vital for an Opposition.

While the Dail is sitting the agenda is set by the Government. The opposition is usually just reacting to it.

This is not always a bad thing, especially for an Opposition that is effective at harrying the administration. This was the case in the latter half of the last Government. The only crumb of comfort Brian Cowen's administration got from the polls was when the Dail was in recess.

But an opposition also needs to set the agenda too. It takes a lot of preparation and planning for an opposition to get the focus on its agenda. These breaks can often provide that space.

Politicians on both sides should acknowledge this fact.