Democratic scrutiny is dead in the Dáil
Is this because there was no time? Certainly not – a planned Monday sitting of the Dáil was summarily cancelled that week at the behest of the Government. Or am I being unfair in highlighting an atypical episode? No. In the same week, the Personal Insolvency Bill, a highly complex piece of legislation, and the cuts to social welfare that have awful consequences for real people, were rammed through in the same way. And this is not just happening with financial Bills.
Last July, for example, the “debate” on the Bill to scrap elections to Údarás na Gaeltachta became a perfect expression of the way parliamentary scrutiny really works. So little time was given to the Bill that all 34 Opposition members present walked out. The “debate” thus consisted of Minister of State Dinny McGinley making a speech and Government Chief Whip Paul Kehoe saying “hear, hear”.
Last week, Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte told The Irish Times: “There is an all-pervasive negativity in the media that is not helping the mood of a people that is in distress and difficulty. I don’t think the media give a damn about where this is going to bring politics. It is worthy of some thought of where the constant denigration of politics is going to bring us.”
Pat Rabbitte is quite right to be alarmed by the depth of public cynicism about politics. He’s not wrong to think that parts of the media simply feed and exploit that cynicism. But media contempt for politics is as nothing compared with the self-contempt of our politicians. There are boy-band fan clubs with more pride, assertiveness and independentmindedness than our democratic parliament. This state of affairs hinges on the cynical willingness of the Government to abuse parliamentary democracy and the pathetic willingness of loyal backbenchers to be abused.
Pat Rabbitte could end this cynicism tomorrow: by cutting his bloated salary; by remembering that promises to voters are not just “what you tend to do during an election”; by not asking us to believe that the system that was so rotten when Fianna Fáil was operating is now fine; and by not showing such open contempt for any TD who upholds a principle.
If he’s as alarmed as he says he is about where the corrosion of faith in democratic politics is leading us, he has it in his power to prove the cynics wrong.