Daniel McConnell: Labour and Social Democrats are outperforming Sinn Féin

During Dáil Q&A with under-fire Justice Minister Helen McEntee, Alan Kelly and Catherine Murphy were clear in their questions over the Séamus Woulfe debacle. The same couldn't be said of the largest opposition party
Daniel McConnell: Labour and Social Democrats are outperforming Sinn Féin

Mary Lou McDonald and her chief lieutenants are being overshadowed by parties who have fewer Dáil seats. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Earlier this week, I was stopped in the corridor in Leinster House by a friendly Sinn Féin TD who said they had a complaint.

They asked why the Irish Examiner and other media outlets are giving so much attention to Alan Kelly of Labour and Catherine Murphy of the Social Democrats, when Sinn Féin is the lead opposition party.

The feeling was Mary Lou McDonald and her chief lieutenants are being overshadowed by parties who have fewer Dáil seats.

I argued that in the cases of Kelly and Murphy, on several issues in recent months they have been out ahead of the others and made the running.

The simple truth is, aside from Kelly and Murphy, Labour and the Social Democrats TDs have simply outperformed their Sinn Féin counterparts time and time again.

For example, take the two-hour questions-and-answers session with Justice Minister Helen McEntee in the Dáil on Thursday. Former Labour minister Brendan Howlin conducted a masterclass in parliamentary deconstruction of McEntee’s handling of Séamus Woulfe’s nomination.

“As I understand it, the minister’s position is that this process was set aside, that she alone made the decision and then presented it to the Taoiseach, Tánaiste, and minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, as a done deal and that they, their advisers, and party managers simply nodded through her personal choice. I believe I am presenting her position fairly,” he said.

“After a decade of experience in three Governments, I consider that an absurd position. To get listed on the Cabinet agenda, a memorandum has to go through a vetting process involving all party leaders involved in the Government and especially the Taoiseach. Presumably, the minister’s officials prepared the memorandum for the Government.

“She said in her contribution today that she received a draft memorandum in her office on July 6.

“Surely she was advised that the previous Government, led by Deputy Varadkar, had established a non-statutory advisory group outside of the JAAB [Judicial Appointments Advisory Board] to assist with identifying eligible and qualified persons suitable for appointment as senior judges.

“That committee was served by a secretary who was a representative of the Department of the Taoiseach.

“Was the minister aware that this advisory committee recommended a number of persons to be considered for judicial office?

“Did she have regard to the recommendations of this advisory committee in making her choice of who to propose to the Government to be nominated to the Supreme Court?” Mr Howlin said.

“If it was the case that political agreement had been reached between the Government parties that the outgoing Attorney General should be appointed to the Supreme Court, I believe that would be both legal and constitutional.

“I will simply say, however, that it certainly would not be best practice.

“If it was the case that the minister was simply left with a fait accompli on arriving into ministerial office, that there was already a political agreement about who should fill this vacancy, that would be politically understood, if not accepted or agreed with.”

Murphy, during her contribution, was equally forensic.

“When an appointment was being made to a higher court, the Supreme Court, judicial experience was not a valued criterion for the Taoiseach or the Tánaiste,” she said.

“The minister would have us believe that there was a fair and equal consideration of all applicants.

“The minister received a hospital pass and is being put in the firing line. She is defending the process by which the appointment was made, when we all know full well there was no process.

“Just as the minister has been put in this position, the opposition has been taken for fools. The nonsensical suggestion that the minister would come in and use the normal ministerial question time to deal with this was not only an insult, but a dangerous precedent.

“Those who applied other than through the JAAB process must be questioning what was the point. I put some questions about this to the Taoiseach in July, but they were ruled out of order. I was told that under Standing Order 44, there was no official responsibility to Dáil Éireann for some of the matters I raised relating to the criteria for appointment.”

Social Democats co-leader Catherine Murphy: Forensic in her probing questions during the Dáil debate on the appointment of Séamus Woulfe. File picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Social Democats co-leader Catherine Murphy: Forensic in her probing questions during the Dáil debate on the appointment of Séamus Woulfe. File picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins

In comparison, the performances of Sinn Féin’s Martin Kenny and Matt Carthy were heavy on polemic and extraordinary light on probing questions.

“People are sick to their back teeth of it. They are sick of the political strokes, the who-one-knows manoeuvring and Fine Gael cronyism," moaned Carthy.

“The minister had an opportunity to come clean and confirm what everybody knows. It is deeply regrettable and disappointing that she did not take that opportunity."

Aside from that session, the truth is that Labour under Kelly is a more robust and combative proposition, and the bombastic Tipperary leader has regularly landed blows on the Government while McDonald and Sinn Féin have fallen flat.

For example, Kelly was the first opposition leader to back Gino Kenny’s Dying with Dignity Bill, while McDonald and Sinn Féin equivocated and fudged for several weeks.

Labour Party leader Alan Kelly: A robust and combative proposition. File picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Labour Party leader Alan Kelly: A robust and combative proposition. File picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Kelly has established a reputation for dogged questioning of the Government on everything from justice issues to the State’s response to Covid-19, whereas Sinn Féin has resorted to ill-judged stunts like the motion of no confidence in Tánaiste Leo Varadkar three weeks ago.

The question is why, for all of his effective parliamentary and media work, has Kelly not yet delivered an improved poll rating for his party?

Labour remains stuck in single digits in terms of its popular support. It is a long way from the 36% the party found itself on a decade ago under Eamon Gilmore.

Gilmore, too, regularly outshone Enda Kenny in the Dáil, landed significant blows, like claiming the scalp of then-ceann comhairle John O’Donoghue, and describing the actions of then-taoiseach Brian Cowen as “economic treason”.

Whatever the merits of those comments, it was effective, robust opposition, and Kelly is following that model.

For Sinn Féin, it has to accept that it has failed to maximise its numerical advantage in the Dáil and is being outsmarted and outplayed by more nimble and sharper opposition from the likes of Labour and the Social Democrats.

While McDonald and her party have genuine aspirations to be in government, they are struggling in their role to be the lead party in opposition.

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