Chair of the Dáil finds himself in the hot seat
ANALYSIS:Seán Barrett’s combative style as Ceann Comhairle is under scrutiny, writes HARRY MCGEE
It’s been a turbulent time for Ceann Comhairle Seán Barrett in the Dáil this week: three sitting days have seen numerous rows between him and TDs on the Opposition benches and at least one suspension of Dáil business on each day.
On Monday, he closed down the Dáil when Independent Deputy Luke “Ming” Flanagan confronted him in the chamber about comments he claimed he had made about the Dáil’s dress code. Flanagan said his children had been teased as a result of it.
Flanagan and Barrett have history. Before the summer recess Flanagan subjected Barrett to a prolonged haranguing in the Dáil corridor after a dispute over a Dáil vote. This week he described Barrett as an “unprofessional” chair.
On Tuesday, there was further acrimony when Taoiseach Enda Kenny asked Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams to explain the circumstances behind Belfast woman Jean McConville ’s disappearance. Barrett would not accede to Adams’s request for the remarks to be withdrawn. He restated his view in a follow-up letter.
On the same day, Independent TD Joan Collins had named a number of high-profile people who had penalty points withdrawn. Barrett had already warned Deputies in writing not to name any names
Yesterday Barrett said he was “sick to death” of Deputies talking over each other.
In the morning Barrett berated Collins, saying her actions on Tuesday had been a serious breach of privilege.That prompted an angry response from Sinn Féin’s Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, who accused the Ceann Comhairle of applying double standards, and hypocrisy, by taking no action on the Taoiseach’s reference to Jean McConville.
The Ceann Comhairle, riled, asked Mac Lochlainn to leave the chamber but he refused. It took two suspensions and more than 45 minutes for Mac Lochlainn to finally vacate his seat under protest.
The office is a Constitutional position. The holder is obliged to be non-partisan and is the only TD who does not have to seek re-election. The Dáil operates under strict standing orders that put huge restrictions on when you can discuss a matter, and how. This leads to conflict. And with the hostilities between parties that invariably arise, it is very difficult to keep order.
Different holders have approached it in different ways. Séamus Kirk, of gentle demeanour, struggled to maintain order. John O’Donoghue lost his temper on his first day in the job.
Barrett is most like Ruairí O’Hanlon in style. In a shorthand way, that is very interventionist, with a style that hovers between crankiness and exasperation. The incidents this week have brought Barrett’s style and authority under new scrutiny.