Tongues wag over row on appointing new clerk of the Dáil
Seán Barrett wants to retain legal right to nominate an individual to the Taoiseach
Ceann Comhairle Seán Barrett is at odds with Enda Kenny and Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin over how to choose a replacement for civil servant Kieran Coughlan, who retired last month after 23 years as clerk of the Dáil and secretary general of the Oireachtas Commission. Photograph: Frank Miller/The Irish Times
Tongues were wagging in Leinster House this week after the latest twist in the continuing stand-off between the Taoiseach and the Ceann Comhairle over the appointment of the Dáil’s most powerful official.
Seán Barrett is at odds with Enda Kenny and Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin over how to choose a replacement for civil servant Kieran Coughlan, who retired last month after 23 years as clerk of the Dáil and secretary general of the Oireachtas Commission.
Howlin wants the job to be publicly advertised and the successful candidate appointed following an independent selection process for filling top-level civil service jobs.
Barrett wants to retain the Ceann Comhairle’s legal right to nominate an individual to the Taoiseach – a choice that would be rubber-stamped by Government.
Kieran Coughlan was appointed in 1990 with the involvement of the Top Level Appointments Commission (TLAC). This followed claims in the 1980s that Taoiseach Charles Haughey had played a direct role in appointing his predecessor.
In the months leading up to his retirement, relations deteriorated between Coughlan and the Ceann Comhairle as they differed on how Coughlan’s successor should be chosen.
Barrett feels the Dáil should have the ultimate say on who gets the job. In his opinion, to go down the normal civil-service route would weaken parliament.
To this end, he wrote to the Taoiseach a number of weeks ago outlining his concerns. We understand Enda Kenny did not offer any comfort when he replied by phone.
The Ceann Comhairle called a meeting of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission on Wednesday to discuss the matter. The commission oversees all aspects of the running of the small fiefdom that is Leinster House, including controlling costs.
Apart from commission chairman Barrett – who complained strongly about politicians leaking to media – eight of the nine members were present. Support staff, who would ordinarily be at the meetings, were not allowed to attend.
Barrett asked the TDs to support him against the Government’s proposals on appointing the next clerk of the Dáil. He said parliament had to stand up to the all-powerful Cabinet. They were showing disrespect to the Oireachtas Commission and the Dáil.
He also proposed that the new clerk should not be a member of the commission, as has always been the case.
“That would be like asking a CEO not to attend board meetings,” said one TD when told of this afterwards.
After two hours of discussion, the meeting fizzled out without any decision. There was very little support for Barrett, with almost all members saying they favoured an open competition for the job and the Dáil should be no different when it comes to filling vacancies.
“This is turning into a battle over who is top dog in the Dáil,” remarked a senior Government deputy on Thursday. “Is it the Taoiseach or is it the Ceann Comhairle?”