‘Buttongate’ is petty party rivalry at its worst

‘Buttongate’ is petty party rivalry at its worst
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin asked Timmy Dooley to temporarily step down from the front bench after it emerged that party colleague Niall Collins had voted on his behalf six times. Picture: Laura Hutton/RollingNews.ie

Although it deserves to be treated as a serious issue, the recent voting saga in the Dáil is distracting from more important issues, writes Political Correspondent Elaine Loughlin.

Roll up roll up, circus in town, roll up, take your seats. TDs will be very careful to take up their allocated benches when the weekly voting divisions are called today. But last week’s antics have shown up many of our elected representatives for what they are — clowns in suits.

Politicians got caught up in a tizzy over voting buttons, bottoms on seats, and feet caught on camera — and the media lapped up every tweet, text, and press release. For anyone lying on a hospital trolley or standing in a queue on the street for a hot meal, it must have been galling.

The Buttongate saga should of course be treated as a serious issue, as agriculture minister Michael Creed put it: “It is extremely difficult to imagine an issue more grave in terms of the integrity of our democratic process.”

It has raised significant issues about the respect — or lack thereof — shown by TDs to both the voting process and their constituents who have placed their trust in their representative to act on their behalf in the national interest.

We know that TDs became so casual around the voting process in the Oireachtas that it became commonplace to bellow down to another politician to press their voting button while they continued with conversations on the sidelines of the Chamber.

Part of this apathy can be blamed on the unique circumstances of Confidence and Supply, which has lead to a dilution of the importance of votes. The Government now loses ballots on a regular basis and when opposition bills are passed, they are shoved down to committee where they are left to linger. But that is no excuse.

“The integrity of the voting process is at the centre of our democracy,” the Taoiseach told the Dáil this week.

Whether it is people going to the polling station to cast their vote on election day or referendum day, or whether it is Deputies or Senators voting in these Houses, people need to know the system is robust and valid.

Leo Varadkar added: “It would be a crime if an ordinary citizen cast a vote on their own behalf and that of someone else. To vote on behalf of somebody else is impersonation and to vote twice is a crime.”

Since it first emerged that Fianna Fáil TD Niall Collins had voted six times on behalf of party colleague Timmy Dooley when he was not in the chamber, the mystery of phantom voting has been all-consuming for those elected to Leinster House.

Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghail initiated an immediate investigation, the clerk of the Dáil was ordered to carry out interviews and inquiries into the matter.

As the list of potentially implicated TDs grew, there were calls for those involved to come before the House to answer questions. There were suggestions that some should step aside. Indeed, the two men mentioned above have been temporarily demoted from the Fianna Fáil front bench.

As Fianna Fáil came under mounting pressure, footage of the Dáil was forensically investigated. After a 12-month trawl of the CCTV, they claimed there were “eight clear instances” where Fine Gael ministers were identified as not being present in the Chamber when their buttons were pressed.

One of those, Regina Doherty came back, identifying her shoe in one of the shots as proof she was there. I only wish the same level of attention had been given to the five-year-old homeless boy who was photographed eating his dinner from the street.

The appalling bleak image of ‘Sam’ gained some attention, but there were no calls for inquiries, no insistence that the Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy come before the Dáil to immediately answer questions.

Tonight, around 4,000 Sams will go to sleep in a bed that isn’t theirs, many will have also taken meals from volunteers handing out dinners on our streets. The Novas organisation has revealed that homeless children are presenting at emergency accommodation hubs with underdeveloped swallow reflexes and problems with chewing, believed to be associated with a prolonged diet of non-perishable puréed food.

Yes, homelessness, public housing waiting lists, hospital trolley figures, the number of children waiting for special needs assessments and other pressing issues are often raised in the Dáil. But there is a sense of Government and opposition simply going through the motions.

When the lack of new allocations of home help hours in Co Offaly was raised by Barry Cowen yesterday, the concern was cast aside by health minister Simon Harris as “faux outrage from a tetchy Fianna Fáil party”.

Today the Buttongate charade will continue when the results of the inquiry are due out and the Ceann Comhairle has made it clear that time will be allocated to debate and discuss it. When you skim away the real issue of democratic integrity, you get to the nub of what is exercising TDs. It is petty party rivalry at its worst.

After grudgingly putting up with each other as uncomfortable bedfellows for four years, the Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael partnership is on the brink of collapse. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have been akin to silent partners who put up with the digs and snide remarks, but now they have finally admitted that they are just not compatible.

Both sides exploded this week and a tit-for-tat squabble ensued in the hope that political gains might be made.

Today (thus) another important issue — the spiralling costs of the already over-budget National Children’s Hospital and the quiet resignation of the State’s chief procurement officer Paul Quinn from the hospital’s development board — had to be shoehorned into the schedule after some insistence by Solidarity-PBP TD Richard Boyd Barrett.

Despite the fact that the hospital has already gone over budget by €455m, the Taoiseach this week could not indicate the level of further costs that the State may be hit with before it is built. That would be “commercially sensitive”.

Mr Varadkar also casually dismissed Mr Quinn’s departure as “not new news” as he revealed to the Dáil that he had heard about it in July. However, no one outside of Government seems to have been informed.

All while sick children wait not just for a new hospital, but for treatment. In July the number of children on waiting lists for the State’s three pediatric hospitals had reached almost 50,000 — a 46% jump from June 2016. More than 19,000 children must now wait more than 12 months to see a specialist.

In the general health service, 7,713 people have been on trolleys since the beginning of October — a 13% increase on the same time period last year. But yet again, there will be no inquiry into these failings. TDs this week have been instead preoccupied by inter-party rivalry, by fingers on buttons and potential future votes in public ballot boxes.

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