Politicians prove they have no self-respect

Tue, Jul 14, 2009, 01:00

The use of the guillotine on Dáil debates 13 times last week makes it very difficult to respect Government politicians, writes FINTAN O'TOOLE.

THERE ARE messers in every job but most people take pride in their labour. They have standards and won’t allow themselves to do shoddy work. But there is one exception to this rule, one profession that has such abject self-contempt that there is nothing it will not do. Sadly for the rest of us, that profession is parliamentary politics.

Every so often, I start to feel a little sorry for TDs. Most of them are decent, well-motivated people. They get saddled with the incompatible expectations of an electorate that wants them to be local ward-healers and national legislators and as a result they lead a pretty terrible life. Give them something to do (like a serious parliamentary committee with actual powers) and they turn out to be, on the whole, far more competent than is generally assumed.

I tell myself that the broad contempt in which they are held is often unfair and corrosive of democracy. A desire to give them a break begins to soften the heart. And then they go and spoil it all with a week like last week in which TDs collectively, and Government backbenchers in particular, could not have shown less self-respect if they had painted polka dots on their naked bodies, stuck feathers up their rear-ends and hung up a day-glo sign over Leinster House saying “Will do tricks for
money”.

If you think I’m exaggerating, force yourself to read the Dáil proceedings for any given day last week. You might start out believing that there is a separation of powers in which the executive (the Government) is held to account by the legislature.

Half an hour in the company of the proceedings of our august parliament will have you convinced that the Dáil’s relationship to government is more Max Mosley than Montesquieu. Its anthem is not Amhrán na bhFiannbut Hit Me Baby One More Time.

Over the course of the week, the Government used the guillotine on parliamentary debates a total of 13 times. What a guillotine means is that government amendments to legislation which have not yet been debated are deemed to have been passed and the whole Bill is then put to a vote which the government wins.

Laws get on the statute books, affecting the lives of every citizen, which have had minimal or no scrutiny. Parliament effectively ceases to function.

Look at a few instances of this charade.

At the end of the previous week, a vote was called on the second stage of the Criminal Justice Amendment Bill, a highly controversial piece of legislation that fundamentally alters the right to trial by jury.

Whether one agrees with the Bill or not, no one would argue that it is anything other than a very serious change in the nature of Irish criminal law.

The second stage division went like this on Tuesday morning. The Ceann Comhairle puts the motion that “the Bill be now read a second time”. He calls for those deputies seeking a division to stand. Three Sinn Féin TDs get to their feet. As there are fewer than 10 deputies seeking a vote, the motion is declared carried.

A raft of Government and Opposition amendments to the Bill were supposed to be debated. Even when they did get an airing, it would be flattering to call the debate cursory.

Government amendment number two, for example, creates a long and complex list of suspicious items whose possession can be used as evidence of a crime. The amendment is 553 words long. The entire debate on the amendment is 402 words long.

On Friday, when the debate on the Bill was resumed, there were huge issues to be debated, including, for example, a very important amendment from Fine Gael’s Charles Flanagan to ensure that no one would be convicted merely on the opinion of a garda without corroborating evidence.

The debate began at noon. At 1.30, with some deputies pleading to be allowed to speak and a raft of amendments not yet discussed, the Ceann Comhairle simply proposed “That the amendments set down by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform for committee stage and not disposed of are hereby made to the Bill, in respect of each of the sections undisposed of, the section, or as appropriate, the section as amended, is hereby agreed in committee . . . that the Bill, as amended, is accordingly reported to the House, that fourth stage is hereby completed and the Bill is hereby passed”.

This was just one of a number of similar “debates”, including one on an important and thoughtful Labour Party Bill on support for victims of child abuse.

While Opposition TDs did their best to get debates going, the Government just ploughed on, confident that Fianna Fáil and Green TDs would simply vote Yes or No as instructed, making Pavlov’s dogs look like lions.

Leaving aside all questions of ideology, how can intelligent adults agree to be treated with such flagrant contempt?

They showed that they have absolutely no respect for themselves.

That being so, who are we to disagree?

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