One of the very first lessons in the How To Get Along In Politics Handbook (Haughey, Mandelson et al, 1978) is howto run down the clock in a television or radio studio. To, in football terms, choke the opposition.
An ambitious, first-term deputy, sent to bat on a sticky wicket, will understand the necessity of preparing a time-consuming spoof, a sweet if unsatisfying blancmange that sounds almost germane but offers no new information. Nor does it risk opening previously unseen avenues of questioning.
That greenhorn, the smarter ones at least, will understand they are a political version of Stalin’s WWII penal divisions sacrificed to impossible odds for the overall good. They will also understand, or at least hope, that they are making an investment in their future. After all, if there was good news to impart, if there was a victory to be garlanded in laurel, then one minister or another would surely find a sudden gap in their diary.
The reflex response to that analysis might be to dismiss it as altogether too cynical but the furore over Dáil voting seems another run-down-the-clock dodge even if on a far grander scale. To paraphrase that question sometimes foolishly directed to a guard who has stopped a slaloming motorist: “Have they nothing better to do?”.
It is vital the relevance and integrity of our parliament be protected though it has, over many years, been emasculated by procedural changes, especially those shielding ministers from hard-edged questioning that might offer a wider perspective than that usually available.
That process, sent out like a neighbour’s child in a Halloween disguise, was dressed as reform but it was regression and another step in the unwise concentration of power. That relegation of Oireachtas members to spear-carrying status may be behind the culture that tolerated the voting practices that have provoked fury even if empty stables and horses long bolted come to mind.
Especially as those changes were enacted so easily. There was no Alamo defended by tribunes turned bit players whose relevance, like the DUP’s, is now occasional and transitional.
Nevertheless, the episode shows our politicians in a light that will not enhance their status or our politics. It shows a disregard for simple rules and a visceral opportunism from all concerned. Fine Gael seems more enthusiastic than anyone else to maximise the Punch and Judy opportunities. However, the cyclical nature of politics and their unsettled internal difficulties may cause them to regret such hubris.
It’s almost two years since TD Danny Healy-Rae raised this issue when he claimed Transport Minister Shane Ross voted in place of an absent Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone. At that time Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl declared the committee on procedure and privilege would deal with it. Almost two years later, nothing has changed and our parliament’s voting procedures are more Tammany Hall than the purest Vatican consistory.
It suggests current outrage may be misdirected. As ever it is more important to confront the cause rather than the symptom — no matter how unacceptable. Once again, institutionalised stasis undermines our democracy and our selective fury allows it to fester.