Everything that is sacred will eventually become superstition

The problem for Timmy Dooley and Niall Collins is that they are denied the status of knaves because they have been certified as fools instead, writes Gerard Howlin

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin with Timmy Dooley and Niall Collins. Picture: Laura Hutton/RollingNews.ie
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin with Timmy Dooley and Niall Collins. Picture: Laura Hutton/RollingNews.ie

When you trade in votes on an industrial scale — and that is the basis of what politicians do for a living — the sanctity of the act loses its allure. The vote, as an offering to inviolable principles of democracy, needs, must be carved up in the abattoir of events. That is what Bismarck meant when he quipped that laws are like sausages — it is best not to see them being made.

It’s unfortunate for law-making that the sausage-making side of the process was comically but cruelly exposed by the nod of Fianna Fáil TD Timmy Dooley to his colleague Niall Collins, his prompt exit from the Dáil chamber, and Collins voting for Dooley six times in absentia.

The comedy unfolded later. The denial of what took place in answer to media inquiries was worse than untruth; it was a mistake. The shovelling of slurry behind the scenes since towards the Fianna Fáil chief whip Michael Moynihan, from sources close to people who are not known for readily taking direction, added to the slapstick.

Ballymagash Urban District Council, the great forum of Irish democracy in the 1970s Halls Pictorial Weekly, wouldn’t have been in. There is little more devastating in politics that being laughed at. The faux outrage poured from prepacked containers in Fine Gael particularly, hasn’t caught on among a public who politically are far better educated than they are given credit for.

After all, many of them casually sold their own votes in the first place. The problem for Dooley and Collins is that they are denied the status of knaves because they have been certified as fools instead.

The firing of accusations from Fine Gael, and subsequently Sinn Féin, added to the farce. Never one for reflection, Noel Rock didn’t understand that his explosion of indignation was as lethal as a shaken bottle of 7Up. The contents spilled mainly on himself.

I have lost count of the number of Fine Gael TDs who, because they are in government, are mission-critical on every vote, had their voting buttons pushed while they were mysteriously absent from their seats. If public services as a whole were as automated, Ireland would be a world leader.

Still, our Dáil chamber stands out as a centre of excellence. There is a particular nonsense now been trotted out, as more are caught in the maw, that there is a difference somehow in being voted for, depending on whether you were or were not inside the locked doors of the chamber when the vote took place. That subspecies of the old mental reservation, is the parliamentary equivalent of equine manure.

The relevant standing order 73 which deals with Dáil votes makes no provision for deputising a parliamentary vote. What has happened is simple and obvious. Bad habits have inculcated and grown. Casualness has become the new order. This is an era when routinely buttons are pressed by others, on the social media sites of politicians and many more.

In several cases the content is created vicariously as well. There is something innately casual about pressing any one of the electronic buttons we all use. That casualness has now infiltrated the parliamentary process. It has also violated it, and unless urgently addressed will undermine confidence in the democratic process. Every vote, every time has to be accurate and assured. That means one TD, one vote, one time only, in each division on every question in the Dáil.

In another era, when the range of electronic buttons hardly went beyond a lightswitch, my memory of student politics in Trinity in the 1980s was the wholesale stuffing of ballot boxes. The squalor of the morals was in keeping with the grandeur of the 18th century architecture there and across College Green in the old Irish Parliament.

The traditions of corruption which ran deep were curiously adapted by that first generation of university students who, being the product of free secondary education, categorically had no claim whatever to any connection with the Ascendency. Still the little connivances for small stakes came naturally to youngsters, hardly more than children themselves.

In a foretaste of New Politics, or even the grand coalition of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, which has never come to fruition, tightknit, self-perpetuating regimes in both party branches in Trinity which were not universally popular with their wider membership, arrived at a simple solution.

The list of to-be-relied-on members were enrolled in both organisations who, for the small consideration of a little alcoholic drink and fun of doing it, attended both AGMs and voted an agreed slate.

In this way order was maintained. If all that seems a little picturesque now, there is another issue. More than the casualness engrained by constantly using electronic devices of every kind is the weariness that comes from dealing with the short-termism and selfishness of voters.

Irish voters are not moral leaders. Wisely, perhaps, politicians don’t criticise the electorate. But it’s a pity that a fraction of the scrutiny politicians are subject to isn’t spent on the determination of Irish voters to first get what they want and then roundly blame those who did their bidding for then being reckless.

All of which is to say, if you deal in votes for a living, they likely lose their status as sacred objects. Everything sacred eventually becomes superstition.

An aside of this affair, ludicrously called Buttongate, is a not insignificant shift in the balance of power within Fianna Fáil. This occurs as Micheál Martin enters into a brief and maximum period of political potency vis-à-vis his parliamentary colleagues in advance of an election in which, for the first time, he has a credible chance of becoming Taoiseach.

THAT possibility bears enormously on his power to determine their futures. The dispatch of Dooley and Collins into political limbo and the appointment of Jack Chambers and Seán Haughey as temporary replacements is a display of indifference towards senior colleagues which his TDs will note. Some may now be asking if they shouldn’t have shown more respect sooner. There will be a stricter discipline from now on.

Just as Martin took the opportunity to tighten the reigns in Fianna Fáil, this fracas is mission-critical for the ceann comhairle. There is reason card voting, which would individually identify every TD on every vote every time, was never introduced.

It is the same reason the allocation of free Oireachtas envelopes to senators and TDs has never been barcoded. The accountability would be too irksome to bear. I like politicians as a class. I like many of them personally too. Mostly they are better than some of their critics. But on this they are behind the curve.

Voting may be monotonously routine in Leinster House. But those votes are at the heart of the democratic process.

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