FERGUS FINLAY: Gino is right, Dáil’s a kip, we have countless case studies to prove it

Vera Twomey, from Cork, with People Before Profit TD Gino Kenny at Leinster House last March. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

What happened to Gino Kenny’s bill on medicinal cannabis was another example of extremely poor parliamentary work, writes Fergus Finlay

So, is the Dáil a kip? Is People Before Profit TD Gino Kenny right?

I worked in Leinster House for the best part of 20 years, and loved every minute of it. I think parliamentary democracy is fundamental, and it’s the job of Leinster House. If it, and what it stands for, was abolished, it could only be replaced by something much, much worse.

But in its unwillingness to really reform itself, in its incapacity to deal effectively with major issues, in its frequent posturing and grandstanding, it actually is a bit of a kip. It talks the talk about new politics, but it doesn’t walk the walk. Mr Kenny is right about that.

Mind you, if he really believes the place is a kip, he ought to be remonstrating with his colleague Paul Murphy, who has done more to reduce the place to a kip than most with his ego-driven grandstanding and his determination to replace parliamentary democracy with street politics.

Mr Kenny is frustrated because he did an important piece of legislative work, on the legalising of cannabis for medical purposes, which is an important health and social issue in its own right. That’s the kind of work that serious TDs do (even if they don’t always get
rewarded for it by the electorate).

Mr Kenny’s bill was spat out by a committee of the Dáil. One of his parliamentary colleagues, Fine Gael TD Kate O’Connell, whose expertise on health matters is grounded on the fact that she runs a chemist’s shop, announced the rejection of the bill in a radio interview, and went on to say that they (the Oireachtas Health Committee) had thrown it out in order to keep the public safe.

I’ll come back to Mr Kenny’s bill — in my view an excellent piece of work which needs to be tightened up in some respects — in a moment. But the general question of whether or not the Dáil is a kip — and has it always been thus — deserves a bit of consideration.

Back in 1947, the Dáil passed a Health Act which contained a provision (Section 66 of the act) enabling the minister to ban any “instrument, appliance ,or apparatus” that in his opinion could cause “serious injury to health or body”. That section wasn’t put there to enable the banning of guns or cigarettes. It was put there at the behest of the then Archbishop of Dublin to enable tampons to be banned, lest they cause harm (or sexual pleasure) to women.

Although enacted by the Dáil, it was never implemented, thank goodness. But neither was it ever queried or challenged in the Dáil. It was many years later before the real meaning of the section was even discovered. Nobody saw fit to tell or to ask in the Dáil why that section was being put into an act. It was just buried there in a huge act that ran to 109 sections.

In the reign of Charlie McCreevy as Finance Minister, the Dáil passed an amendment to the Finance Act which introduced a tax break for people who accessed a private psychological assessment for one of their children. It meant that if you paid a private psychologist, say, €200, you got nearly half of it back in your taxes. Because a guillotine was in effect, the amendment was actually passed into law because it was never reached.

Charlie McCreevy
Charlie McCreevy

That meant is was never read, never debated, and never voted on. It subsequently transpired that other departments, including the Departments of Health and Education, were never consulted about the amendment.

The effect of that new bit of law — an entirely predictable effect — was to create a private market in educational psychological assessments for those who could afford to buy them. A number of psychologists retired from the public service to take advantage of this market — fair play to them — while the waiting list for assessments by those who couldn’t afford to buy got longer and longer.

In 2001, Mr McCreevy and Joe Walsh, then Minister for Agriculture, introduced a piece of legislation that broke every rule and tradition of how public finances are supposed to be managed. They legislated for a €200m fund for the horse and greyhound industry, and they provided in the law that every penny from betting taxes would be ring-fenced and given to the industry. Money has never been ring-fenced for hungry children or disabled adults, but more than €200m was put aside for horses and greyhounds.

And they did that, sad to say, with the enthusiastic support of all sides of the Dáil — the most vociferous supporters being those who represented constituencies where the gee-gees are seen as more important than anything else.

These are just three examples of Dáil Eireann doing its business — which is our business — in ways that truly warrant the term kip being applied to it. The thing is, it’s been going on for generations. And it’s pretty clear that so-called “new politics” hasn’t changed things much.

We might have hoped the new system of Oireachtas committees, much vaunted as a higher level of scrutiny, would prevent that sort of thing from ever happening again. I’ve appeared in front of some of them, and I know that some committees do good work.

However, what happened to Mr Kenny’s bill on medicinal cannabis was another example of extremely poor parliamentary work, that actually failed to serve or protect the public interest.

Gino is right, Dáil’s a kip, we have countless case studies to prove it

When that poor work is presented as activity to keep the public safe, when it’s nothing of the kind, it only serves to make Mr Kenny’s point more strongly.

I’m no expert on cannabis, but I’ve seen at first-hand how it can genuinely help someone with a terminal condition to cope with what life is throwing at them.

What’s more, I’ve read Mr Kenny’s bill, which is aimed at making certain kinds of cannabis available in controlled conditions for medicinal reasons.

It’s 24 pages long and runs to 44 sections (the last section extends the smoking ban to prevent cannabis being smoked in the workplace).

You can see immediately what the bill is for, and you can see some problems with it. There’s nothing wrong with the bill that couldn’t be fixed by good will and a bit of hard work.

Deciding to simply throw it out was a stupid and ill-considered thing to do.

All the more so when the Health Committee had in front of it a detailed report from the Health Products Regulatory Authority (HPRA). That body — known for its conservatism and care — didn’t call for the banning of medical cannabis. Instead, it recommended that its use be limited to certain conditions, and its administration handled with great care.

If the health committee was serious about following the advice of the HPRA, they’d have set about working on the Bill to get it right. That might have involved engaging with Mr Kenny, and getting him to change his bill in some important ways. Instead, they decided to characterise the bill as some kind of charter for recreational cannabis use and throw it out.

Sadly, that’s the kind of thing that happens in a kip, not in a serious parliament.

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