Miriam Lord: Looking for some dangerous liaisons in the Dáil

Alas, Enda Kenny’s Parliamentary Liaison Unit is not quite Tinder for TDs

Brendan Howlin: The Labour leader was feeling a little shortchanged on the liaison front. As were his colleagues in Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Brendan Howlin: The Labour leader was feeling a little shortchanged on the liaison front. As were his colleagues in Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

There was great excitement in Upper House at the end of September when the Taoiseach (con)descended on the chamber for some soft-soaping of the Senators.

They were delighted with the attention. It was so cute. When Enda arrived, they presented a united front of soft bellies for the ritual tickling.

Oh, but their guest couldn’t speak highly enough of them. And he was most keen to tell them about the measures his new administration had brought in to make their Oireachtas the best small parliament in the world in which to do business.

He took the spellbound Senators on a tour of an enchanted world called “the new political landscape”. He pointed to its many wonders, among them a recently established hillock named the “Parliamentary Liaison Unit”.

Senators perked up at the mention of parliamentary liaisons.

This liaison project would be “a catalyst for improved communication” between Ministers and their Departments and Opposition spokespersons and their teams, promised Enda, as though he was launching a special Taoiseach’s political Tinder for TDs (and Senators).

Wanton consensus

Truly, he desired more “cohesion” among parliamentarians, not to mention wanton “consensus”. So he established the Parliamentary Liaison Unit to egg them on and also “facilitate the enhanced relationship between the Government and the Oireachtas”. Along with, presumably, the aforementioned Opposition spokespeople and their teams.

Who could argue with that?

And while it was never definitively established, word went around that the members of Enda’s new liaison group had been recruited from the ranks of former Club 18-30 holiday reps.

But, as often tends to happen, everyone promptly forgot about the wheeze. Although it’s easy to forget when something once promised just vanishes into the ether.

Until yesterday, when the Labour Party leader decided to ask Enda about his much-vaunted Parliamentary Liaison Unit. How many fun guys and gals are working in it and what exactly do they do?

Enda answered by reading a prepared answer about the “enhanced relationship” role and how the unit “supports” Ministers and departments trying to get to grips with Dáil business. It also “liaises on a regular basis with advisors” including the Independent Alliance’s chief strategist and the political co-ordinator for Independent Ministers.

The unit is staffed by a principal officer, a higher executive officer and a clerical officer.

Hook-ups

However, after a long answer, there was no mention of hook-ups with Opposition TDs.

Only for Government people, and Independent Government supporters whose liaison status is definitely considered dangerous by their senior partners.

Howlin was intrigued. Particularly as he heard that the Chief Whip had been given a second special advisor “to deal with parliamentary liaison”.

A stout blackthorn stick would have been cheaper.

Anyway, Brendan was feeling a little shortchanged on the liaison front. As were his colleagues in Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin.

He wanted to know more about the Dáil’s Club Liaison team. “Who exactly are they liaising with? Is it everybody or is it designated people? Is it people who support the Government on the Opposition benches or who potentially support it?”

Were they supporting Independent government facilitators such as Boxer Moran or Michael Lowry? And as the unit’s stated objective is to facilitate a better relationship between Government and the Oireachtas, he wanted the Taoiseach to explain if it is liaising with all politicians or just TDs who support the Government.

Enda started talking about helping Ministers and departments deal with the increasing number of Private Members’ Bills coming through.

“But we all produce them,” protested Howlin, wondering why the unit wasn’t supporting his party.

“That’s what it does,” sniffed Enda, explaining that the unit is “involved” with advisors from the Independent members of Government.

Get on the list

The Labour leader said his party, and other parties, would love the assistance of the liaison unit when working on their Bills. “How do you get on the list?”

The Taoiseach flatly stated that this support was for Ministers and their departments.

Then Fianna Fáil’s Robert Troy got involved. “I’m just seeking clarification too on behalf of the party leader today in terms of what arrangement is in place.”

Fianna Fáil should know.

Troy said his party draft their bills with the help of their own officials. Nobody’s ever suggested a liaison to them.

He wondered if the unit was not a device for doing deals with friendly TDs like Michael Lowry. It isn’t there to keep his Independent supporters sweet, insisted Enda.

“It sounds like a wonderful facility,” remarked Joan Burton. Any chance of getting the contact details of the staff? “We can all think of occasions when we could use the kind of services that are being described.”

Mary Lou McDonald cut to the chase. “So this this an internal Government facility? Is that it?”

Email offer

Whereupon Fianna Fáil’s Declan Breathnach got to his feet. “In fairness, I was circulated with an email offering me that facility.”

That came as a surprise to the rest of the Opposition TDs.

“I don’t recall receiving any such invitation, and I am a senior supplicant,” huffed Howlin. “The Parliamentary Liaison Unit is available to all of us. That’s very helpful.”

“No, that is not what applies,” snapped Enda.

Robert Troy was confused.

“But what were advisers doing in the previous governments? Were they not engaging with one another?” he queried. “Is the relationship so fractured that you need another layer of people to ensure interaction and engagement, and how you’re going to get the information from one Department to another?”

“I’m still not crystal clear,” said Howlin.

Mary Lou was back on the case.

“We have now established that it is not purely a facility for Government. So tell us then the extent of liaison with the Oireachtas? Has there been a liaison beyond the Government benches?”

Enda didn’t say.

Fevered brows

Joan was back. “It sounds awfully like they are kind of relationship counsellors, there to soothe fevered brows in the heat of parliamentary discussion.”

Had the unit “shared some of this relationship stuff” with the Ceann Comhairle?

“Maybe you should have had them in the last government, Joan,” chirruped Boxer Moran.

“We lasted five years,” retorted Brendan Howlin.

“I’m afraid I have no relations that I need to tell you about,” said the Ceann Comhairle.

“Deputy Burton had a few herself when she was in the role of tánaiste and an important minister in the previous government” noted Enda.

“A few relationships?” dripped Joan. “I had many, yeah.”

Finally, the Taoiseach appeared to admit that this liaison carry-on is only for Government people. Everything they do is published.

So could he publicise whether he has “an arrangement” with Michael Lowry, asked Troy.

“No.”

“So he’s telling a lie.”

Enda bristled at the word.

“Has the parliamentary relations officer a relationship with him?” wondered Joan.

No reply.