Few deputies can escape Seán Barrett’s tongue or temper in Dáil

Profile: One description of Ceann Comhairle is that he’s an equal opportunities grump

Ceann Comhairle Sean Barrett during an interview by Deaglan De Breadun in his office in Leinster House. Photograph: Frank Miller

Ceann Comhairle Sean Barrett during an interview by Deaglan De Breadun in his office in Leinster House. Photograph: Frank Miller

 

While he is currently engaged in a row with Sinn Féin, there are few in the 31st Dáil who have been spared the sharp tongue and sometimes short temper of Ceann Comhairle Seán Barrett.

The most accurate and fair description of Barrett, a Fine Gael TD for Dún Laoghaire, would probably be that he is an equal opportunities grump.

At various stages during his three-and-a-half-year term, he has fought with the Government, Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and the Independents.

Such were the strains in the relationship between Barrett and the Government in the autumn of last year, there were genuine fears he could resign or else say something that would make his position untenable.

He was then at loggerheads with the Government over filling a vacancy when the Clerk of the Dáil, Kieran Coughlan, retired.

New clerk

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There was some trepidation in both the Oireachtas and Government about what he might do or say and correspondence was flying between Barrett and Government Buildings up to the morning of the broadcast.

Whatever the content of those letters, they may have assuaged Barrett. While there were raised eyebrows when he seemingly questioned the strict whip applied to Lucinda Creighton and others who rebelled from Fine Gael over abortion – drawing on his experiences as a government and Fine Gael chief whip – it was a tame enough affair.

“I think he has fallen out with everybody,” says one who has observed him over the past number of years. “He does think that he, from the very off, has been independent of the Government and has run the Oireachtas from that point of view. The stuff last autumn proved that.”

A senior figure in Government agrees: “What do I think of him? A b****ks. But it is absolute rubbish to say he is in favour of the Government.”

Such unparliamentary language would probably see a deputy suspended from the Dáil chamber by Barrett, but the opinion is shared by others in Leinster House.

He is seen, variously as “a grump”, “tough” and “too impatient”, but most acknowledge he takes his job very seriously.

But, once outside the chamber, he is still a visible presence around Leinster House. Unlike some previous holders of his office, who often dined alone, Barrett still goes to the members bar for a soup and sandwich at lunchtime and is often seen down the back of the self-service canteen eating his tea over the evening newspaper.

At the weekend, Gerry Adams called him “unfair and petulant” and Sinn Féin is contemplating tabling a motion of no confidence in Barrett. Others are unlikely to follow.

“There would be a sense among our lads that he is not as fair as he might be but he takes the job very seriously and he would believe himself very fair,” a Fianna Fáil TD said. “We will be supporting him and won’t be taking sideshots at him.”

Main complaint

One of Barrett’s predecessors says any ceann comhairle appointed from the ranks of the main Government party must give the Opposition more leeway to counteract the impression of favouritism for former colleagues.

“I think Seán Barrett could do that more,” said the former ceann comhairle, who nevertheless said Barrett does a good job keeping the House in order. “It’s a bit like listening to a long play record. You let them at it but at some stage you have the lift the needle. He gave Mary Lou enough rope last week and she used it to hang herself.”