Fianna Fáil apparently not for turning in row over Ceann Comhairle’s accusation

Seán Barrett’s position may be untenable if FF leader Micheál Martin calls for vote of no confidence

The controversy surrounding Sean Barrett has spiralled so far out of control that it has the potential to undermine the Ceann Comhairle’s position and do real damage to public confidence in the Dáil and its institutions.

On Monday, Barrett issued a statement that was clearly designed to avert a confrontation with the main opposition party, Fianna Fáil, but it did not go nearly far enough.

Like so many political controversies down the years, the serious issue now is not so much the original decision by Barrett, which involved ruling out a Dáil debate on a contentious issue, but his response to the Opposition challenge to his ruling.

In an ill-judged radio interview last Friday, Barrett, who was speaking on a phone from Dublin airport, accused Opposition parties of seeking to undermine his position.


Unsurprisingly, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin was outraged, saying the Ceann Comhairle had made a completely unjustified accusation. Ominously, Martin added: “This charge will not go unchallenged.”

Ball in his court

Over the weekend, Fianna Fáil chief whip Seán Ó Fearghaíl said his party could not tolerate Barrett’s claim. “We’ve asked him to withdraw it and the ball is in his court. I don’t envisage Fianna Fáil being able to express confidence in someone who says we have undermined him.”

Ó Fearghaíl offered the Ceann Comhairle a way out. “He said it in anger and was clearly very emotional about it. In the cool light of dawn he should retract it.”

Barrett responded on Monday but did not go nearly as far as Fianna Fáil expected.

Referring back to his radio interview, he said: “Perhaps in the heat of the moment during that interview I may have given the impression that the opposition were not entitled to question my decision as to why a debate was not allowed. Of course I accept that they are entitled to question my decision.”

This did not address the point that most concerned Fianna Fáil: the charge that the party is trying to undermine the Ceann Comhairle’s position.

Fianna Fáil TDs pointed out that when the Ceann Comhairle found himself in serious conflict with Sinn Féin before Christmas, over Mary Lou McDonald’s refusal to leave the Dáil chamber, the party declined to get involved in a move against him.

That is why senior figures in Fianna Fáil were so annoyed that Barrett lumped them in with Sinn Féin and a swathe of Independents as being out to undermine him.

If Fianna Fáil go ahead and put down a motion of no confidence in him, then Mr Barrett’s position as Ceann Comhairle will be fatally undermined – even if the Government parties ensure that the motion is defeated.

Gilmore’s motion

Around Leinster House on Monday, TDs of all parties recalled the day in October 2009 when then Labour leader Eamon Gilmore announced in the chamber that he intended to put down a motion of no confidence in former Ceann Comhairle John O’Donoghue.

It was the fatal blow that undermined O’Donoghue’s authority, and by that evening he had resigned. That controversy related to his expenses in his previous job as minister for Tourism and Sport.

The controversy about Barrett is more serious in that it relates to the way he conducts his constitutionally independent office.

Some false claims about his behaviour have surfaced in recent days. Far from being a mouthpiece for the Government, Barrett is actually on cool terms with the Taoiseach and some of his Ministers because he hasn’t been as compliant as they would like.

Imposing order

At times Barrett has aroused the ire of Sinn Féin and some Independents by the way he imposes order in the chamber. But anybody who has watched Dáil proceedings lately will appreciate the difficulty the Ceann Comhairle faces in keeping control.

The problem for him now is that his authority will be fatally undermined if the main Opposition party votes no confidence in him. He can easily withstand attack from the political forces that are currently promoting instability and disruption. But if Fianna Fáil goes against him, it will be a different matter entirely.

If he wishes to remain in office, Barrett will have to publicly and privately exempt Fianna Fáil and its leader from the charge that they are out to undermine him. If he does not, Martin will have no option but to proceed with a motion of no confidence.