Leaders are few and far between in Dáil

TD Simon Harris has claimed the media is this country’s real opposition. Somebody has to be, because those in the Dáil aren’t up to the task, writes Political Correspondent Shaun Connolly.

Leaders are few and far between in Dáil

IS the media the country’s real opposition, and, if so, why? Fine Gael TD Simon Harris made the charge as he accused some journalists of abandoning reporting in favour of a course of constant conflict with the Government.

Harris, who at 26 is the youngest TD in the Dáil, seemed particularly agitated by media criticism that he should “go home and play with his Lego”, but his comments open up an intriguing debate about why parliamentary opposition is so weak, and why the Government likes it that way despite all its talk of wanting to lead a “political revolution”.

The press has always been an integral part of the cut and thrust of political discourse, which is why it is often discursively referred to as the “fourth estate” by elected representatives.

Origins of the phrase are disputed, but many believe it was first used by philosopher Edmund Burke on the opening up of the House of Commons to the press in 1787, and now portrays the pushy ink merchants as an unwanted add-on to the previously established three estates of the realm — the clergy, the nobility, and commoners.

From the conspiracy of silence between all political parties over the Oireachtas expenses gravy train to issues of cover-up and rampant hypocrisy, it is clear why the press must search and probe a traditionally smug and self-absorbed political elite.

But an all-powerful executive with an unprecedented majority in the Dáil has now thrown-up an unparalleled political situation.

The sheer weight of the Government numbers is compounded by the sheer poverty of opposition on offer on the floor of the Dáil.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin promised a constructive, non-cynical approach to challenging the Government, but like so much in opposition, that has proved to be just words.

Still tainted by his senior role in a government that surrendered Ireland’s economic sovereignty to foreigners, Martin leaves Fianna Fáil with the image of prisoners of the past rather than soldiers of destiny.

Martin’s authority has also suffered a severe, probably terminal, blow with his humiliation over X-case legislation where ambitious, and effective, finance spokesman Michael McGrath forced a free vote which saw TDs break 2-1 against the leader’s stance.

Martin’s style at the twice-weekly political theatre (or should that be pantomime?) of leader’s questions can often appear ambulance chasing — though that is the age-old conundrum for oppositions; do they strive for credibility or attention?

The second biggest bloc facing a Government with nearly two-thirds of Dáil seats is Sinn Féin, whose attempt to dislodge Fianna Fáil as the voice of opposition is hampered by the misfiring Dáil performances of its leader, Gerry Adams.

The transfer of Adams to the Dáil stage seems to have diminished his standing rather than enhance it, while recent revelations about journeys in vans with blacked-out windows with the families of IRA murder victims once again emphasise that for many, he has never satisfactorily explained his role in the Troubles.

Sinn Féin likes to highlight his record as a peacemaker, but before you can make peace you must first make war, and so many question marks remain regarding exactly what part he played, and on whose authority he can deliver apologies, like the one for the murder of Garda Jerry McCabe, on behalf of the Republican movement.

Luckily for Sinn Féin, the party’s deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald is one of the best performers in the Dáil, and is also considered a “clean skin” who lacks “something of the North” about her.

McDonald often lands strong verbal punches on the Taoiseach during leader’s questions on issues as diverse as the ‘Anglo tapes’ and the squalid treatment of the Magdalene laundry survivors.

But as Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin scrap to be top dog on the opposition benches, they fail to be watchdogs of an arrogant executive — as shown recently when Martin used his energies to fight a Dáil turf war with Adams in which he insisted nobody believed he had not been in the IRA. A relieved Taoiseach joined in with a divide and conquer attack.

The rag-bag of independents are too diverse to be cohesively relevant, though when Clare Daly or John Halligan get the rotating shot at leader’s questions they usually leave a mark.

But is this opposition really any weaker than its predecessor? Taoiseach Enda Kenny had the nerve to insist the Seanad should be swept away (thus giving the executive yet more power) because it never challenged the Celtic Tiger madness which gripped the country — but neither did Kenny at a time when his job was to hold the government to account.

The old maxim is that governments get up in the morning and decide what they are going to do that day, while oppositions decide what they are going to say.

In opposition, Kenny and Labour leader Eamon Gilmore said an awful lot, but it still took the biggest economic contraction experienced by any Western country since the 1930s to bring down the Fianna Fáil-Green coalition.

That shambolic government collapsed from within. A tragicomedy was played out inside Fianna Fáil as the impotent, irrelevant Greens watched from the sidelines.

When the Greens finally did decide to walk in late 2010 they could not even get that right and prolonged the whole mess for another three months.

The terror of opposition so haunted Fine Gael and Labour that they then sowed the seeds for their present rank unpopularity in government by promising far more than they knew they could deliver to an electorate that was willing to vote for them anyway just to get rid of Brian Cowen’s Slump Coalition.

In the final week of the general election campaign, Fine Gael was so desperate to govern alone, and Labour so desperate to avoid a return to the opposition benches, that both made a shower of pledges on everything from not pumping another cent into Anglo to protecting child benefit; pledges they soon abandoned once in office.

One of the biggest lies was the “political revolution” they would unleash.

Unlike Westminster, where prime minister David Cameron’s coalition is regularly brought to book by its own MPs, the Dáil regime swallows up any dissent, whether internally or from the opposition benches.

All opposition parties promise to change that system once in power; all decide they suddenly like the status quo just fine once they sink into the soft leather of the chauffeured limousines after the election.

Harris claims the media “fuels anger against the Government”. He would be better advised to dwell on the fact that, in reality, it just reflects that anger and allows a much-needed outlet for dissent which is crushed by the Dáil machine of which he is a part.

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