The Dáil was forced to suspend debate on major Covid-19 financial legislation because changes in ministerial portfolios after the sacking of Barry Cowen meant no Minister sufficiently familiar with the Bill was available to answer opposition questions.
Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe was at a Cabinet meeting and former minister of state for finance Jack Chambers had been promoted to Government Chief Whip.
Sinn Féin finance spokesman Pearse Doherty acknowledged the urgency in passing the Financial Provisions (Covid-19) Bill but he said it was "unacceptable" that the Dáil had been left without adequate Government representation.
People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith said it was an “insult to the House” and “ utterly shameful that the Minister for Finance” was not in the Dáil to deal with the legislation.
Mr Chambers had steered the Bill which aims to support small and medium-sized enterprises, through the initial second stage debate.
In a rare move, the House was suspended for over 30 minutes to allow the Minister and TDs confer with officials and have questions answers about the legislation after Minister of State for the OPW Patrick O’Donovan apologised to the House for his lack of familiarity with committee stage amendments to the Bill.
Mr O’Donovan had been assigned at the last minute to deal with the legislation after the changes in ministerial portfolios and said “I only became aware of the size of the Bill late in the day”.
The legislation will allow the State access to a €25 billion European Investment Bank guarantee fund to finance high-risk operations that are viable in the long-term but vulnerable because of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Ireland will be required to guarantee a maximum of €167 million in the event of losses and access up to €1.5 billion.
All 27 EU states must pass the legislation before the funding can be drawn down.
Mr Doherty who asked a number of questions linked to his committee stage amendments said “we have facilitated, supported and allowed this legislation to be fast-tracked. It is like saying that everything will be okay and that we should just turn up and it does not matter.”
But he said “it is important and, indeed, crucial that we fully understand each and every part of the Bill given that it commits the State to being in hock for €750 million”.
Mr Doherty had asked if the Minister for Finance would not attend for any of the debate but Mr O’Donovan said he was at the Cabinet meeting and sent his apologies.
Independent TD Catherine Connolly described the legislation as "one of the most complicated pieces I have ever tried to read".
She said in some parts of the 140-page Bill “the English is unintelligible”. She added that “I have to depend on the word of Government, in which I have little trust, that this is very good for us”.
But she acknowledged that “Europe is finally acting in unison, though belatedly, as best it can to allow us to access funding”.
Ms Smith criticised the rush to pass the Bill this week when she said France, Estonia and Germany would only do so at the end of July and when the Dáil was sitting until the end of the month.
Ms Smith said they were passing a very complex Bill without proper scrutiny of a very complex Bill.
The legislation was passed without a vote and now goes to the Seanad.