Speaking rights move ‘logical, fair and democratic’
Is Kenny letting go the string of the dissident kite, allowing it float into the skies?
Reform Alliance members Lucinda Creighton and Billy Timmons photographed outside Buswells Hotel at the weekend. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons / THE IRISH TIMES
On one of his very rare one-on-one media interviews on RTE’s Morning Ireland yesterday, Taoiseach Enda Kenny gave a lesson in political ambivalence that has only been equalled in the past by Bertie Ahern with his smokes and daggers.
Some of my colleagues divined that he was leaving the door slightly ajar for the seven Fine Gael TDs and Senators who voted against the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill and were expelled from the parliamentary party. For others, including this reporter, it sounded very different. When he described them as “free spirits” the immediate image was of Kenny letting go the string of the kite and letting it float into the skies.
There is a ritual that has to be observed for politicians who lose the whip. And that’s to keep your head down, your hands in your pocket, vote with your party every time and whatever you say, say nothing controversial. Sure, it’s solitary confinement but the lure for the prodigals is return.
But everything that the seven remaining Fine Gaelers have done in the past month suggests a diverging path and possibly the establishment of a new party, occupying the kind of space on the spectrum once occupied by the Progressive Democrats.
The group has its own name, Reform Alliance, held its own ‘think-in’, has forged a social media presence, and now it has been included in the rota of speaking time in the Dáil.
Ceann Comhairle Sean Barrett’s decision last night did not involve any change to the standing orders of the Dáil. Any member of the Dáil is entitled to speak once he or she indicates by showing their hands and it left to the discretion of the Ceann Comhairle.
A practice has grown up in the Dáil where there is an informal rota where the Government speaks first and then TDs from each of the opposition parties and the technical group.
Up until now non-aligned TDs were not included on the rota and had to physically indicate during a debate that they wanted to speak.
Mr Barrett has now included the 14 non-aligned TDs (those who are not members of a party or of the technical group) in the rota so they will have speaking slots as a matter of course for each debate.
The change does not allow the Reform Alliance or any other non-aligned TDs (which also includes five Labour Deputies) the right to ask Leaders’ Questions or put forward private members motions. The right to speak does not extend to committees - it will be in the Government’s gift to grant this.
We will learn early in this new term just how independent the satellite will be from its mothership, when its TDs and Senators vote on legislation and private members motions in the coming weeks. The crucial votes will be those of next month’s Budget. If any, or all, of the alliance vote against Government measures, it can be taken that the split will be permanent rather than temporary.
Why did the Ceann Comhairle extend the right? Some see it as stemming from the difference of opinion between Mr Barrett and the Government over the appointment of a successor to Kieran Coughlan, the retired clerk of the Dáil. In the past, it was the Ceann Comhairle who recommended the name of the new clerk in consultation with the Government. But the Coalition has decided to change the procedures and it is it alone which will appoint Mr Coughlan’s successor. That has reportedly led to tensions between the office of the Ceann Comhairle and the Government.
However, the inclusion of non-aligned Deputies into the rota is a mechanical and procedural change rather than a fundamental shift in policy, or in standing orders. It merely includes non-aligned deputies into the rota. Parsed objectively on its merits, it is the logical, fair and democratic thing to do.