INTERVIEW: New Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl no coward in keeping Dáil in line

Seán Ó Fearghaíl tells Political Editor Daniel McConnell about his plans for the role of Ceann Comhairle, and how he is considering sanctions to help keep TDs in line in what threatens to be a chaotic Dáil.
INTERVIEW: New Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl no coward in keeping Dáil in line

HE has the most unenviable job in Irish politics, having to chair the most chaotic Dáil ever elected.

Yet, last Thursday, in his expansive office in Leinster House, new Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl, showed little sign of a man who is overawed by his new challenge.

I am granted 30 minutes and we sit down for his first major interview since his election to become the Dáil chairman last month, over a modest glass of Cabernet Sauvignon.

Unlike many who have held the role, O’Fearghaíl is a warm and engaging personality, and says his approach will not change now he has to oversee the most disparate Dáil in history.

We begin with what he will do to those ministers who refuse to answer questions in the chamber.

He makes his position crystal clear. Taoiseach Enda Kenny and his new team of ministers will be rebuked by Ó Fearghaíl should they attempt to stonewall and refuse to answer questions in the Dáil.

Ministers will not be allowed to dodge tricky or uncomfortable questions from members of the opposition.

“If the answer is not satisfactory, yes I will intervene, and I will point it out to the minister in question,” he says.

“I think it will be reasonable given the new standing order that a minister will be required to address the question, and not get up and make a statement about something else. Somewhere in his/her answer, the subject matter of the question will have to be dealt with,” he added.

In light of the new make-up of the Dáil, Ó Fearghaíl has just overseen the introduction of a wide range of new and enhanced powers for the Dáil.

But he is clear, with those new powers come responsibilities, and any TD seeking to abuse those new powers will be “shut down” and sanctioned.

“I have talked to the political leaders and the leaders of the independent groupings on a number of occasions. We talked about this issue of people naming people from outside the house. It is not appropriate for people to do so and I pointed that out.

“I asked them that if they have concerns to raise the matter with me in advance and flag it to me so we could have some opportunity to check if it is in the public interest. Otherwise I would be minded to shut down anybody who would be naming people or damaging the good name of people who are not in the position to defend themselves,” he says.

“We will have to look at sanctions for people who blatantly breach privilege, but I have to say, I would consider it a failing on my part if we get to the stage of people being ejected or sanctioned, constantly unruly, unless a person made a very deliberate decision themselves to go down that road and be deliberately disruptive,” he adds.

Such famous instances in the last Dáil, like when Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald named several former ministers in the context of the Ansbacher investigations and Catherine Murphy’s raising of billionaire Denis O’Brien’s affairs, have caused controversy.

Mr O’Brien has taken a High Court action against the Oireachtas and members of its oversight Committee of Privilege and Procedures.

I ask Ó Fearghaíl as to where this matter is at.

“That process is ongoing, there has been a series of preliminary hearings but they take time,” he says.

I ask him if as the head of the Oireachtas Commission, he intends mounting a vigorous defence to the challenge.

“Absolutely,” is the unambiguous response.

Another court challenge, from the former CEO of the Rehab charity, Angela Kerins, is also still live.

“The Angela Kerins thing is still ongoing, we have to let the courts process work itself through. That is a matter which will come to us when our legal people are ready to bring it to us, but as of now, it is in the courts,” he says.

But I then ask him what the impact of becoming Ceann Comhairle has had on him, now that he is above party politics. Is it a lonely position?

“I never went much to the bar, but I go to the members’ restaurant and while I don’t anymore join the Fianna Fáil table, it doesn’t prevent me from having a drink or a meal with anyone.

“In the past, there was this cold clinical thing that you are detached. But there are 157 other people here, they are friends of mine, whether they are in one party or another. I don’t feel sitting down to have a meal with someone from Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil or Labour in anyway contaminates me or prevents me from fulfilling the job of being impartial in the chair,” he says.

“I thought it might be more difficult than it has been actually. When you are in a party, you are supported by the people around you. Now my philosophy and attitudes haven’t changed, but I am strongly supported by the people in the office. It hasn’t been problematic,” he adds.

“One thing I did worry about was fulfilling my representative role on behalf of the people of Kildare South, but there is nothing in being Ceann Comhairle which precludes me from doing so,” he says.

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