Miriam Lord: Calls for repatriation of the Dáil as cost of daily sittings mount

Fed-up politicians want out of Convention Centre and back to Leinster House

Michael Ring: ‘The senior civil servants are running the Dáil and they’re running everything.’ Photograph: Crispin Rodwell for The Irish Times

Michael Ring: ‘The senior civil servants are running the Dáil and they’re running everything.’ Photograph: Crispin Rodwell for The Irish Times

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The schools are working away, essential services and supermarkets never stopped, the retail sector has reopened, the courts are in session, outdoor dining and drinking will be back within a couple of weeks, vaccinations are flying and the Government is making encouraging noises about indoor activities and foreign travel in July.

Slowly, carefully, the Great Reopening is under way.

But one cosseted cohort of Special Ones continues to set itself apart from the great unwashed. TDs and Senators will remain in their taxpayer-funded €20,000-plus per day Covid-19 bolthole in Dublin’s Convention Centre until at least September, if Oireachtas management has its way.

But the politicians do not want this. They want out and back to Leinster House.

Last week the Dáil’s Business Committee agreed on sittings resuming in the Dáil chamber on Tuesday and Thursday, using the Convention Centre on Wednesday for block voting. However, they postponed a formal decision until this week because the Oireachtas Service wanted to “bring in the big guns”, as one member put it.

Public health expert Dr John Cuddihy advised that the safest option was to stay put until the summer recess, with a possible return to Kildare Street in September. The committee adjourned the matter until next week as members wanted consult with their parties in light of the advice.

“Of course it’s safer. We’re in this big, huge, massive, cavernous building, but they are looking for a level of safety that nobody else has,” said another committee member. “Politically, we can’t stand over it. People are starting to say: what the hell are you doing spending 20-odd thousand a day, what the hell are you at when retail shops are open, people are heading back to work and loads of people are already vaccinated?”

On Tuesday, Sinn Féin’s Pádraig Mac Lochlainn put on the Dáil record that representatives of all parties and groups agreed on a return to the Dáil chamber at their last Business Committee meeting. TDs are already working every day from their offices in Leinster House, he pointed out.

His party is calling for a quick return to business in Kildare Street. “That’s the view of Sinn Féin. We’re saying it openly and we’re willing to challenge the advice.

“The rationale is that TDs and Senators are all in Leinster House anyway, going back and forth between the two venues. I respect the concerns of some but the difficulty now, as retail shops are open and vaccinations are moving on, people expect us to be back in work properly with no cotton wool wrapped around us. We have to accept that if we are asking other people to go back to work and get back to normality, then the Dáil has to reflect that.”

Aontú’s Peadar Tóibín also called for the repatriation of the Dáil. He said the daily cost of sittings in the Convention Centre was €25,000, “a shockingly high figure”.

Meanwhile, Michael Ring says he has tabled a motion for next Wednesday’s Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting urging colleagues to back a return to Leinster House.

“I’ve enough of it. So has everyone else.

“They expect teachers to go into classrooms, some of them with over 30 pupils. And there’s 160 TDs but we’re so precious now, we’re so precious, we have to be treated differently and it’s costing a fortune. We’re all supposed to be in this together. If we are opening up the country we should be leading by example and moving to the Dáil to where we were elected.”

They just want an easy life and don’t want us in the way. It’s like a little dictatorship. Jesus Christ, it’s worse than Putin in there

Committee members say they have received letters from unions representing senior civil servants, urging against moving back. “They’re basically holding the line and that is it can’t be business as usual,” said one. “Well, it is – it’s parliament, our national parliament and we are sitting on a full schedule now. We’ve a job to do and a backlog of legislation.

“There’s a clash between the senior civil servants and the politicians, that’s the truth and the Ceann Comhairle is refereeing it. We have to get back into the Dáil chamber again. We’ve reduced numbers already, we’re not sitting cheek by jowl. We’re well separated. It’s perfectly safe.”

Michael Ring blames the Oireachtas management for keeping them out. “I mean, everybody is against the Convention Centre now. It’s not just me.

“The Dáil is no longer for the members. It’s a disgrace.

“The senior civil servants are running the Dáil and they’re running everything. They are not elected – we are.

“They just want an easy life and don’t want us in the way. It’s like a little dictatorship. Jesus Christ, it’s worse than Putin in there.”

Loud and clear: Pearse Doherty. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Loud and clear: Pearse Doherty. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Was that the real Pearse Doherty or was it Memorex?

There was a major fit of the vapours at this week’s Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting, the one where a real live Fianna Fáil Minister was allowed cross the hallowed threshold to tell TDs and Senators what he is doing to tackle the housing crisis.

Darragh O’Brien was the FF gurrier they bravely invited to breach the inner sanctum. If nothing else, such selfless action by distinguished FG members would drive home how utterly serious the party is about dealing with this huge political issue.

It was a virtual meeting, so they didn’t have to turn the Michael Collins pictures around to face the wall or sit beside an actual Fianna Fáil person in the party rooms or anything awful like that.

As it turned out, the Minister for Housing, who is an affable chap, got along quite well with his Coalition colleagues.

They really warmed to him after he gave Sinn Féin a ferocious lash, declaring their housing policies don’t stand up to scrutiny. Senator Mary Seery-Kearney was next. She began talking about the lack of affordability in the market.

All of a sudden, a furious roar from Sinn Féin’s spokesman on finance exploded into the meeting.

Bad enough having to tolerate a Fianna Fáil Minister in their midst, but now this? Hacked by Shinner Wizard Spiderbabies at their supposedly private weekly whinge-in?

“The public anger! The outrage!”

It was the unmistakable boom of Pearse Doherty, deputy for decibels and Donegal.

“...at what has been happening for many years in terms of deliberate policy by this Government which has locked generations out of the housing market!”

The Fine Gaelers nearly fainted.

Bad enough having to tolerate a Fianna Fáil Minister in their midst, but now this? Hacked by Shinner Wizard Spiderbabies at their supposedly private weekly whinge-in?

Seery-Kearney stopped dead. “Jaysis, they’ve also let Pearse Doherty into our parliamentary party meeting.”

“Now that’s a real reach,” smirked Fianna Fáil interloper O’Brien, highly amused. “Did Charlie Flanagan invite him too?”

It was just a little technical blip – someone playing back audio above in the office and forgetting they were still on the call.

Or was it? Politicians are naturally suspicious. As one Fine Gael TD remarked afterwards: “Bizzare... accidentally or on purpose? Hard to tell.”

Ideologically driven to despair

The word “ideology” has been bandied about a lot in the last few weeks.

The Government berating Opposition TDs for their ideologically driven hostility to the diverse range of measures needed resolve the housing crisis.

The Opposition berating Government for its ideologically driven approach to favouring competition and the private market over State provision of housing on State lands.

When the crisis was discovered three weeks ago on foot of a newspaper story about an investment fund buying up new homes in a Kildare commuter belt estate, the Government responded swiftly to public anger by promising to curb the practice.

Apartments? Sure they’re only love-nests for students and transient types and old people who can’t manage stairs in real houses anymore

It was a matter of such urgency that “a whole-of-government approach” was solemnly promised, with Ministers rolled out to announce that this great new weapon against half-arsed Government approaches had suddenly been unearthed in Merrion Street.

Proper houses with front doors for real families became the focus for Government action. The whole of Government – aka a somewhat reluctant Paschal Donohoe and his straining purse strings – duly appeared in the Dáil on Thursday night with new stamp duty rates for bulk purchases of certain homes. Apartments, now almost exclusively the preserve of the investment funds, were not included.

Apartments? Sure they’re only love-nests for students and transient types and old people who can’t manage stairs in real houses anymore.

On Wednesday, Gary Gannon of the Social Democrats echoed Opposition anger over the decision to exempt them from stamp duties and planning restrictions.

“How can anybody who lives in an urban centre such as mine in Dublin Central see that as anything other than an abandonment of our city centres as a place to live, or to aspire to own an apartment and raise a family? I cannot for the life of me understand why we can have one particular set of rules for suburbia and another for the city centres.”

It isn’t an abandonment of anybody, insisted Micheál Martin. There is simply an issue with supply.

“Lower the rents!” shouted Gary.

“But what we have done now with the 10 per cent stamp duty is we’ve made a far better situation for first-time buyers of houses and duplexes,” said the Taoiseach.

“What about apartments?”

“We need to build more apartments.”

“When?”

The docklands Dáil in Dublin’s financial district is surrounded by apartment blocks. “Taoiseach, look up when you walk outside. Over €2,000 for each of those,” said the TD, despairingly.

The Government has made a good start but a lot more needs to be done, conceded Micheál. This won’t happen “if we end up in endless ideological warfare, which seems to be the only proposition coming from you and others”.

“But your ideology has led to the housing crisis. The hands-off, developer-led approach has led to the housing crisis,” retorted Gary.

Socialist Paul Murphy can’t resist a bit of ideology.

He rose to speak. Couldn’t stop laughing.

“It’s noteworthy that the Taoiseach is the only man in the building without an ideology,” he chuckled. “It’s quite striking: the best kind of ideology – when you don’t admit that it’s an ideology.”

Speaking of which, Micheál’s Coalition partners have an ideology too. The Greens are in pain over this blanket apartment decision – sustainable homes for families in a living city is what they want to encourage.

You could see party leader Eamon Ryan struggling to hold the line in the Dáil.

Some tweaking of measures will have to be done.