Ahern plan to give North MPs Dail rights rejected
A proposal from the Taoiseach to invite Sinn Féin and other Northern MPs to speak in the Dáil at least twice a year has been immediately rejected by his Coalition partners, the main Opposition parties and by unionists, writes Mark Brennock, Chief Political Correspondent
Sinn Féin and the SDLP were the only parties yesterday to welcome Mr Ahern's plan to invite Northern MPs to make presentations concerning the North and the Belfast Agreement, probably in the Dáil chamber, starting from early next year.
The widespread rejection of the plan among Dáil parties yesterday almost certainly means it will not be implemented in its present form. Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin between them would have a Dáil majority behind the plan, but Fianna Fáil would not consider seeking to introduce such a change against the wishes of the PDs and the largest Opposition parties.
The appearances by Northern MPs proposed by the Taoiseach would technically be made to a Dáil committee. However the committee would be "a committee of the whole House", whose membership would therefore include all 166 TDs.
The Taoiseach's letter to Dáil leaders outlining his plan yesterday did not mention a venue, but on the rare occasions when committees of the whole House have been set up in the past, they have met in the Dáil chamber. This would be seen to be of great symbolic importance both by Sinn Féin, which supports the idea, and by the Opposition parties, which oppose it.
Only Sinn Féin and SDLP MPs would be expected to take up the invitation to participate in the scheme, proposed by the Taoiseach in a letter to all party leaders on Wednesday. Mr Ahern asked the party leaders to give him their views at an early date.
Rejection yesterday was swift, with Fine Gael, Labour and the PDs saying the proposals were unacceptable. The DUP's Peter Robinson said the party would not participate, while Dermot Nesbitt of the UUP said he was "outraged".
Sinn Féin's Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin and the SDLP leader Mark Durkan separately welcomed the proposal as "a step forward".
Sinn Féin has pushed hard this year to get speaking rights in the Dáil for its Northern representatives and the matter has been discussed between the Taoiseach and Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams.
In August the Taoiseach wrote in this newspaper that he had in mind a "sensible but modest" proposal to "facilitate committee discussions with Northern MPs on matters relating to Northern Ireland and the Good Friday agreement".
Technically, Mr Ahern's proposal does indeed envisage "committee discussions" with Northern MPs. But setting up a new "committee of the whole House", probably meeting in the Dáil chamber, would allow for considerably higher-profile appearances by the North's MPs in the Dáil than the "committee discussions" floated by the Taoiseach. Normal Dáil committees meet in relatively small rooms and are attended by a small number of TDs. The Taoiseach's proposal is for a much larger-scale interaction.
"The whole purpose of this exercise is to allow Gerry Adams be televised addressing the Dáil in the Dáil chamber," a Labour spokesman said. "There are many other ways of doing it, but this is all about the optics of having Gerry and the boys debating in the Dáil on television."
In his letter Mr Ahern proposes "that Northern Ireland MPs be invited to make periodic presentations regarding Northern Ireland and the Good Friday agreement in a committee of the whole House and participate in exchanges on these matters in keeping with existing committee procedures which facilitate input from outside membership of the Dáil." This would not involve giving them "speaking rights or privileges in the Dáil".