Dáil chamber still unattended, and largely irrelevant
Opinion: Ministers and opposition read prepared scripts and rarely engage
Wednesday is usually the Dáil’s most substantial day. Last Wednesday, however, our lawmakers made no laws. They didn’t vote on any laws either.
Instead most of Wednesday, most of Tuesday and almost all of Thursday was given over to sessions called “Government Priorities for the Year Ahead: Statements”.
A look at this week’s proceedings in Dáil Éireann gives an interesting insight into how our Dáil continues to operate below par.
The tone for the week was set during a procedural wrangle on the Order of Business on Tuesday afternoon about whether the Opposition whips had agreed to Government plans to devote most of this week to “Government Priorities for the Year Ahead: Statements”. The Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin leaders suggested they had no choice but to do so given the Government’s large majority.
There then followed hours of Ministers and Junior Ministers making speeches about the Government’s achievements and plans, and Opposition Deputies making speeches criticising the Government’s performance.
This pattern of parliamentary selfies went on for hours across the three days.
In almost all cases Minsters merely read scripts written by civil servants. When, occasionally out of boredom, Deputies and Ministers did directly engage with one another, it was technically out of order and quickly reigned in by the Ceann Comhairle or whoever was chairing at the time. Most of the Opposition speakers also just read prepared scripts.
In deciding on the Dáil’s business for the week the Government refused to agree even to a modest Opposition suggestion that the statements by Minister and the relevant Opposition spokesperson should be scheduled to follow each other, and that Ministers might take questions after each of their presentations.
The Dáil did debate legislation for two hours on Tuesday night and Wednesday night: the Protection of Residential Mortgage Account Holders Bill introduced by Fianna Fáil’s Michael McGrath.
The Government decided not to oppose the passage of the Bill at Second Stage, although Minister for Finance Michael Noonan expressed scepticism whether the legislation if enacted could have any real impact.
At 9.30am on Wednesday, Dáil proceedings began with just a handful of Deputies in the chamber to hear Joan Burton answering questions as Minister for Social Protection. This question time was relatively interesting. It included useful exchanges between the Minister and party spokespersons and Independents on topics such as the Gateway “labour activation” programme and the diet supplement scheme for celiacs.
These ministerial question times should be done in committee format rather than in the main chamber. It would give more Deputies a real opportunity to participate, and it would mean Ministers would have to account to parliament more regularly.
On Tuesday and Wednesday there were “Leaders’ Questions” with the Taoiseach for about 1½ hours. On Thursday there was a similar session with Tánaiste Eamonn Gilmore. These were staged, stilted and uneventful.
On each day there was also a short Order of Business session in which some Deputies showed great ingenuity in seeking to raise newsworthy issues while confined to asking technical question about impending legislation.
There was also a series of short debates each day on “Topical Issues Matters”. On Wednesday these included the crisis in Ukraine, the recent storm damage to Kilrush marina, a Dublin inner city community employment drugs rehabilitation scheme and the need for some regulation of counselling services. It was a useful exercise in raising the profile of these issues but is unlikely to have any real impact on Government policy.
Except for a vote called by Micheál Martin on the order of business on Tuesday, there was no Dáil votes this week.
It is obvious to Dáil watchers that Oireachtas committees have proved more effective and more high-profile in recent weeks, but this has been in dealing with publicly-funded bodies and not directly with Ministers.
The main Dáil chamber continues to be under-attended and largely ineffective.
It’s also obvious the Government has run out of legislation to put before either House of the Oireachtas. The Government seems to be struggling to fill time in the Dáil at the moment.
This inevitably means that at the end of the current term the Government will be ramming and guillotining loads of legislation through in the last couple of weeks.
Little has changed after so much supposed reform.