Sinn Féin has accused Ceann Comhairle Seán Barrett of acting as a “shield” to government scrutiny after staging a sit-in that shut the Dáil down earlier today.
The party’s deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald sparked the four-hour demonstration after refusing to leave the chamber over a row about questions routinely not being answered.
After the protest, which forced the closure of the Dáil until next Tuesday, Ms McDonald said the Deputy Barrett was “aiding” government leaders in refusing to answer questions.
“They are there to run the house, to oversee the debates, with no favouritism and no political agenda, and we expect that the Ceann comhairle would do that,” she said.
Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, who joined the sit-in along with other party representatives, went further and said he had no confidence in Mr Barrett.
“These questions are voicing the concerns of countless thousands of citizens, yet time and time again, the minister refuses to answer them,” he said.
“The Ceann Comhairle continually allows ministers to get away with this practice of not answering questions.”
Mr Adams said the basic tenet of parliamentary democracy – holding the government to account – does not function in the Dáil.
“The Ceann Comhairle’s responsibility is to facilitate this in a fair way,” he said.
“Given his treatment of the opposition parties and independents and particularly Sinn Féin I have no confidence in the Ceann Comhairle.”
Ms McDonald had been questioning the Tánaiste and Labour leader Joan Burton on whether social welfare payments would be deducted for those who did not pay the imminent, controversial water charges.
When she refused to take her seat, insisting the question was not answered, the speaker ruled her out of order and called for a vote to suspend the Dublin Central representative.
Despite being voted out – by 64 to 43 votes – and asked to leave, the Sinn Féin TD defied the order.
Mr Barrett refused to go back into the Dáil chamber, describing the sit-in as deeply regrettable and a threat of “further reputational damage” to the parliament.
“It must be clearly understood that it is not my decision that Deputy McDonald leave the House but it is a decision that was taken by the majority by way of vote,” he said.
“I wish to say that I regret very much having to take this route but there is no other option open to me.”
It is not unheard of for representatives to be suspended for a day from the parliamentary chamber but a prolonged sit-in demonstrating against the move is unusual.
Last month, Dáil business was abandoned for the day after a row about speaking rights involving Independent representatives.
The demonstration follows a heated hours-long debate in the house yesterday over alleged sex abuse by several individuals in the IRA.
Sinn Féin rejected accusations from several party leaders that it was complicit in a cover-up.
The controversy was sparked by the high-profile case of Mairia Cahill, a west Belfast woman who has accused republicans of covering up her alleged rape by an IRA man.
It also comes at a time when Sinn Féin are enjoying unprecedented popularity in the opinion polls, ranking as the State’s largest party or neck-and-neck with the senior ruling coalition partners Fine Gael.
A general election expected by early 2016 has turned up the political heat between parties.
Sean O Fearghail, Fianna Fáil party whip, said his party voted against Ms McDonald being suspended from the Dáil but dismissed the protest as a ridiculous time-wasting exercise that brought politics into further disrepute.
“Sinn Féin clearly had an agenda coming into today’s sitting to adopt a disruptive approach in the chamber in order to distract from recent negative coverage,” he said.
“While I don’t believe Deputy McDonald should have been ordered from the house, and Fianna Fáil voted against the motion to have her expelled, the vote was lost and her expulsion was passed.”
Jerry Buttimer, Fine Gael TD , described the demonstration as a stunt.
“I take genuine offence that Sinn Féin would use our parliament as a prop to deflect attention from the negative media coverage over Sinn Féin’s treatment of sexual abuse victims,” he said.
“It disappoints me that Mary Lou McDonald, who herself is an able parliamentarian, is prepared to derail the democratic function of the Dáil in order to try and change the media agenda.”
Mr Buttimer said Ms McDonald was asking questions she knew the Tánaiste cannot answer until decisions are made on water charges next week.