In this era of ‘new politics’, Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl talks to Juno McEnroe about the unenviable job of maintaining order in a fragmented, argumentative Dáil.
With a more fragmented and argumentative Dáil, the role of its chairman is unenviable, especially when some TDs become irate, ignore parliamentary rules and must be read the riot act.
Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl has managed to refrain from suspending deputies from the new 32nd Dáil after more than a year in the chair. He has pulled up many a disorderly deputy, but successfully overseen a chaotic unfamiliar parliamentary regime which the public has come to know as ‘new politics’.
In his elegantly furnished office in Leinster House, the farmer-turned-politician is philosophical about the new Dáil.
The Kildare South TD, having previously served as Fianna Fáil whip, knows a lot about order. But a key ambition, he tells me on this balmy summer day, is taking the heat out of this melting pot of a new Dáil.
“It’s interesting, challengeable, enjoyable. It’s been a voyage of discovery for me personally, and I think for most of us here and I think over the year that we have seen a situation where the individual politicians and parties and groupings have begun to adapt to the radically different situation which the electorate presented us with in the 2016 general election.”
But is the new Dáil, involving a minority government and a plethora of small political alliances and groupings, different from other Dáils, I ask him?
“Of course, it is radically different because we have never had a political situation such as this before.
“We have seen the introduction of a business committee which now arranges the weekly business. It has taken a lot of the conflict, not all, out of the ordering of business.”
So with so many smaller groupings, such as the Social Democrats, the AAA-PBP, the Greens, the Independent Alliance and Independents4Change among others, has there been a ‘meeting of minds’ so to speak when it comes to agreeing new legislation, parliamentary business or urgent reforms?
“I think the politicians and parties have significantly adapted to the changed circumstances, maybe the political system has adapted more readily and more effectively than the permanent Government has reacted and I would have a certain sense that within the permanent Government there hasn’t been the same degree of progress towards the realisation of where we are at and the changed circumstances.
“Certain senior figures in the public service have yet to adapt their own systems to respond to the changed political environment. We get criticism that the current Government is not bringing forward enough legislation. In the reality of the current political situation, the Government has to be prudent about what it brings forward because it has to win support for it.
“Some of those behind Government are even far more cautious than the politicians would be when they’re prepared to try.”
It is curious the one person who oversees the running of the parliament believes that it is in fact senior department officials or even the Government itselt who have yet to come around to new politics. So departments or these senior figures are to blame for foot-dragging in the Dáil, I inquire?
“Exactly,” says Mr Ó Fearghaíl, adding: “The process of change involves everyone, the politicians are in the foreground, but the people in the background have to change as well.
Part of the chairman’s ambition is to lessen cynicism surrounding Irish politics and leave ordinary people believing the parliament is addressing issues in a respectful way.
“During the recession, there was an exponential growth in public cynicism and scepticism about politics and politicians. And a sense that they were in some way responsible, and certainly, there is no denying the fact that over recent years in Ireland and in other democracies, a gulf has opened up between the people and the politicians.
“As a result of that, you have a new sense of tension, but you have guaranteed speaking time [here] and opportunities with the smaller political groupings, those with very diverse views. That [the cynicism] will only change over time. It can be changed by the politicians themselves, in how they communicate with the public.”
A recent measure or reform announced was a new dress code for TDs in the chamber. The Ceann Comhairle says this was partly agreed on the back of complaints by phone and letter from the public not only over what deputies wore but also of slogans on their tops, such as Repeal the Eighth [Amendment].
“We now have a structured dress code to make it clear that sloganeering or campaigning messages are not acceptable in terms of a person’s attire while in the chamber, and that is there now, it wasn’t in the past, and whoever is in the chair will be in a position to enforce that.”
Mr Ó Fearghaíl stressed the new rules would ensure the wearing of football jerseys is also banned.
“It’s down to decent, appropriate attire when you are in a place of work, which in this instance happens to be our Dáil, our national assembly.”
The new rules are unlikely to please some TDs, including Solidarity TD Paul Murphy who has worn Repeal T-shirts and TD Mick Wallace who has appeared in sports tops.
Any refusal though to adhere to the new dress code will have consequences, he warned.
“Failure to comply would be disorder. It would open to the house to suspend a member in such circumstances.”
A testing matter for the Ceann Comhairle has also been the constant use of mobile phones by TDs. Deputies are addicted to their devices and often ignore important Dáil speeches, he says.
“I see people making impassioned speeches about issues and I see other people who really should be listening, working on their devices. It does look bad. Politicians are addicted to communication. And they are addicted to these particular devices.”
An attempt to get an Oireachtas Committee to ban devices in the chamber or block receptions was rejected by fellow TDs, revealed Mr Ó Fearghaíl.
“I could not get agreement. Members would not agree to leaving their devices outside or having their devices blocked.”
But there’s enough engagement to be content with in the chamber. This was evident in recent debates, where some TDs stand accused of breaching Dáil privilege. The Ceann Comhairle is also keenly aware that individuals, both inside and outside Leinster House, must be treated fairly.
This includes the Garda Commissioner, who he admits is a friend, and who in recent months was attacked by some TDs at Oireachtas Committees. The Ceann Comhairle stressed that politicians and the public must be cautious about what he called group think, which he warns can be “extremely dangerous” for society in general.
“Have the public issues about the gardaí? Quite clearly they have, the information reports emerging over the last year or two have all heightened public sensitivity and concern about the Garda Siochána and I think the current commissioner or any commissioner would be the first to accept there is a job of work to be done to build confidence or restore confidence in circumstances where it would have been lost.”
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