WITH politicians not set to return from their Christmas break until January 15, it’s easy to see how this has been dubbed the “do-nothing Dáil”, writes Elaine Loughlin.
Even when TDs are in Leinster House, we could be forgiven for thinking they don’t get up to much, apart from engaging in the odd political spat, with the usual name-calling, smart-remarking, and insult-hurling across the Chamber.
From fob-gate to the war of the voting buttons and, of course, the double-jobbing of Dara Murphy, those elected to serve in Dáil Éireann have not showered themselves in glory in recent weeks and months.
But given the season that is in it, we should give the Government and opposition some credit. This year, 54 pieces of legislation have been passed.
These included measures to extend parental leave, new laws on gift vouchers, the establishment of a tribunal for women impacted by the CervicalCheck scandal, and legislation to protect the country from the impact of Brexit.
The list doesn’t include the myriad private members’ bills brought forward by opposition parties and independents, many of which were tabled in the high hope of being speedily passed into law, but which have remained stuck in the creaking system ever since.
This week, however, as TDs scrambled to get calenders and Christmas cards printed, there was little in the way of dramatic legislative change.
Perhaps the mulled wine and festive cheer have gone to their heads, but TDs, of late, have whipped themselves up into a frenzy.
There were sparky exchanges between the leaders of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in the Dáil this week. Micheal Martin called Leo Varadkar “a nasty piece of work” whose “level of disconnect with the reality on the ground is quite shocking”.
The Taoiseach, in responding to probing on the Mr Murphy debacle, quickly hit back at Mr Martin: “When the Deputy raised the issue of reform of the Oireachtas and restoring people’s trust in it, I thought he might have referred to Deputies Lisa Chambers, Niall Collins, or Dooley, or perhaps even Senator Clifford-Lee, or other Fianna Fáil senators.”
In the end, it was too much for an exasperated Pearse Doherty of Sinn Féin.
He said: “I have a seven-year-old and a nine-year-old at home and, I think, if they behaved the way the two leaders in the House did, I would take them into a corner and have a good talking to them. I think we’re, unfortunately, going to be subject to a lot of this until the general election.”
All the while, the public — who will be asked to decide, in a matter of months or even weeks, whether the current lot should remain in Leinster House — look on.
Many of those inside the Leinster House ‘bubble’ initially dismissed the issue of the TDs engaging in musical chairs at vote time and pressing buttons on behalf colleagues.
On the outside, the issue has gained public attention and caused anger among voters, who would never ask their mammy, or granny or co-worker, to go into a polling centre on their behalf and fill out their ballot paper.
That the public saw this as a more serious issue than did those who have been bestowed the honour of voting on their behalf says a lot about how the current make-up of the Dáil has led to TDs adopting an extremely lax approach to the democratic process.
Politicians have become blasé about the weekly voting divisions, because, in many cases, the outcome of a government proposal or opposition bill actually has no real impact, certainly not in the short- or medium-term.
There was once a time when a government defeat would spark political chaos and maybe even a general election. Indeed, in June 2016, there was much ado when the Government suffered its first defeat in the Dáil, on a Labour Party motion on workers’ rights.
The Government’s amendment to the motion, which was tabled to respond to the way former Clerys staff were treated, was defeated by 58 votes in favour, to 78 against, and was widely reported on at the time.
But since then, journalists have lost count of the number of times the Government has lost votes and opposition wins bear little weight or significance.
In fact, sometimes, the Government has viewed it as the easier option to allow opposition bills pass the initial stages in the Dáil, as they can then stall them at further stages, through ‘money messages’ [signed by the Taoiseach], and other mechanisms, ensuring they never become law.
But this Dáil year hasn’t been all about frustrating of legislation, political point-scoring, or name-calling and, in this season of goodwill, it’s nice to extend some positivity, in the hope that politicians might work a bit harder next term.
While some legislation passed was more technical in nature, other new laws will make a real difference to the lives of Irish people.
One such was the Civil Law (Presumption of Death) Act 2019, which was the culmination of five years’ work by Senator Colm Burke, who first introduced it in 2014.
The change means that families of missing persons presumed dead will no longer have to wait seven years to deal with their estates.
“In such a heart-breaking situation, this new law puts a framework in place to help them navigate the legal quagmire,” Mr Burke said.
In July, the Judicial Council Bill, which allows judges to set guidelines for payouts in personal injuries cases, was finally passed.
Under the legislation, a newly established judicial council will handle a variety of issues facing the courts, including sentencing guidelines for various crimes, as well as complaints against sitting judges.
Again, this law should, in theory, have a real impact on those who go through the legal system in Ireland.
The CervicalCheck Tribunal Bill 2019 was also passed and allows for the establishment of a tribunal for women affected by CervicalCheck to have their cases heard without having to go to court.
However, since then, a number of women have felt the need to take legal action — proving that legislation is not always perfect.
Other pieces of legislation passed into law included measures to extend parental leave and further regulation of aircraft noise at Dublin Airport.
On the opposition benches, some progress was made. Pearse Doherty’s Insurance Contracts Bill, which aims to increase transparency in the sector, passed all stages of the Oireachtas this week.
Praising the body of work that politicians have got through government, Chief Whip Seán Kyne said: “This year, the Government has led 54 bills through the Oireachtas, which is the highest annual total under the current government and well above the annual average of 46 bills per year over the decade.”
Wishing all TDs a peaceful Christmas and an even more productive new year.