Dáil reform - Welcome step in right direction

After a long balmy summer on the beach, TDs finally got back to the business of running the country yesterday and in case they had forgotten what it’s all about they were greeted by the familiar voices of protest against austerity on the streets outside Dáil Éireann. Nothing had changed.

Dáil reform - Welcome step in right direction

And yet, amid the lingering aroma of sunblock cream, a faint but refreshing whiff of democracy wafted through the Dáil, a parliament increasingly coming under the rigid control of a Government with little time for freedom of speech on the floor of the House. And even less tolerance of criticism.

Strangled by a whip system badly in need of reform, backbenchers receive little if any scope to air matters of public concern. Thus the prospect of the 14 unaligned rebels of Fine Gael and Labour getting a word in edgeways seemed very remote. But, thanks to Ceann Comhairle Seán Barrett, they will in future be given speaking rights in the Dáil.

Effectively, this means that on a proportional basis, an extra slot will be incorporated in the time span already allotted for the main parties and the technical group. Obviously, the time will be limited, but it is a welcome move in the right direction towards underpinning the principles of democracy.

Behind this surprise decision, a row is reportedly simmering between the Ceann Comhairle and Government over the unveiling of its plans for reform of the Dáil without consulting Mr Barrett, who had prepared a blueprint for parliamentary reform. Effectively, as chairman of the Dáil, he has struck a blow for the independence of his office.

The last thing the Coalition leaders want is to give speaking rights to disaffected Fine Gael and Labour members. The group has formidable speakers of the calibre of Lucinda Creighton (FG), the former European minister who lost her job over voting against the Government on abortion.

Another political heavyweight, Labour’s Róisín Shortall, ex-junior minister at the Department of Health, resigned both from the job and the Labour parliamentary party in a row with Health Minister James Reilly over the criteria used in selecting primary care centres.

With speaking rights, both deputies could be sharp thorns in the sides of their respective former leaders.

Not surprisingly Ms Creighton has moved swiftly by welcoming the initiative to facilitate “those of us exiled from our parliamentary parties with some vital Dáil speaking time”. Similarly, Ms Shorthall lost no time firing a broadside across the Government’s bows, warning that non-aligned TDs will table a motion to allow them sit on committees, something the Coalition would eschew.

With the budget and two referendums on the political agenda, the opposition parties will forfeit voter support if they fail to score heavily in debates on those controversial issues. Like the protesters outside the Dáil yesterday, most people are in dread of yet another dose of austerity which will make life impossible for many.

Whether €2.5bn or €3.1bn is taken out of the economy in cuts or taxes in the budget, the public know with the realism born of painful experience, that the man and woman in the street, struggling to put food on the table or facing the loss of their home, will suffer most — not bankers on obscene salaries and certainly not TDs on excessive pay, perks and pensions.

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