Why ask Garret hard questions while Bertie gets a soft run?

I am greatly enjoying the ‘FitzGerald at 80’ series on RTÉ 1 on Sunday nights. The energy and interest that Dr FitzGerald continues to demonstrate in public affairs puts men and women half and indeed a quarter of his age to shame.

Vincent Browne’s very forensic and indeed combative interview with him made for compelling viewing. Some may argue it was a little tough — although Garret seemed well up to it.

However, it begs the question, why the pursuit of truth from those nearly 20 years out of power whose record is a fine one — all things considered — when there is not a matching vigour in the pursuit of truth from those who are currently in power and seeking another five-year term in office?

Many people — including many disenchanted Fianna Fáil voters — would like to see Bertie Ahern given even half the measure of medicine dished out by Browne to Dr FitzGerald. Too often ministers are being given a free run on our airwaves, not matched by Opposition spokespersons, and are allowed to bluster their way through interviewers who are on tight time schedules and want to cover several topics — this must change.

We need a political TV channel in this country similar to BBC Parliament in the UK or C-SPAN in America where decision-makers can be scrutinised fully.

The place where truth must be spoken and sought after in the first instance, however, is in the Dáil chamber.

The media play a very important role, but we must always remember it is only complementary. To have a government that only answers to the media or, even worse, the whims of the media is a very bad thing. A government’s first duty is to the people, and it must answer to the people’s representatives in the Dáil chamber. If we do not have a strong Dáil, willing to ask hard questions of government — and be able to demand clear answers — then why have a Dáil at all?

Since my election to the Dáil in 2002 as its youngest TD, the need for reform has been clear to me, often in many frustrating ways.

One of the best Dáil reforms would also be one of the simplest — the ability of any deputy to question any minister simply and without prior notice of the question, and be able to get a direct, unscripted answer.

By all means, if research is needed to clarify a response, then let that happen — but figures should be used to aid clarity, not disguise it. Standing orders must be altered to allow proper follow-up questions.

Deputies must be given the time to dig if they catch scent of a bone. Government is only half right to say the opposition could change Dáil standing orders. Despite what the opposition might propose, and we could propose much, ultimately these amendments must be approved by a Dáil majority on which the Government keeps a firm lock, as anybody who has produced a private member’s bill can testify.

This, coupled with preventing ministers from hiding behind the Ceann Comhairle or the huge numbers of agencies created to avoid tough decisions, such as the HSE and the NRA, would do much to restore the Dáil as the engine of our democracy.

Perhaps with more lively and real questions and answers in the chamber, people might engage with it again. Let’s have real politics with real debate.

Damien English TD

20 Watergate Street

Navan

Co Meath

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