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Miriam Lord: Pray tell, what’s going on in the chamber? Very little

Sparing blushes with a cut to the quorum, and TDs get themselves some quiet time

Hello darkness, our old friend. The Dáil clock chimes the hour of 10...

TDs discussed the Sound of Silence last night. Not the song, but the act of contemplation.

It was explored during a late session when deputies considered the merits or otherwise of beginning the daily business of parliament with a prayer. The proposal was not to change the existing one but to augment it with a period of reflection.

When it was first mooted, they were wildly in favour of pausing for reflection. What public representative doesn’t like throwing shapes when passing a mirror?


After the disappointment wore off, deputies were almost as happy to embrace a brief moment of meditation in the chamber.

It's all very fine allowing TDs a full 30 seconds to stand in silence and explore their thoughts, but the poor put-upon whips are the ones who have to tell them what to think

The elongation of the traditional interlude was welcomed by some but rejected by others who argue that tacking on 30 seconds of silence to a Christian prayer hugely misses the point that a secular parliament should not have one in the first place.

Surprisingly, nobody spoke up in support of the various party whips who will have to shoulder a greater workload if, as expected, the House adopts this new version when the Dáil votes on it tomorrow.

It’s all very fine allowing TDs a full 30 seconds to stand in silence and explore their thoughts, but the poor put-upon whips are the ones who have to tell them what to think.

Quiet rumination

Obviously, forcing politicians to indulge in a spot of quiet rumination could have dangerous consequences. After enough accumulated sessions, they might start thinking for themselves. However, it is encouraging to note that, since 2012, the Seanad has had a similar period of reflection at the start of sitting days and senators are as reassuringly ineffective as ever.

The Upper House begins its day with a 30-second silence followed by a prayer.

The Dáil, to be different, intends to start with a prayer and follow up with half a minute’s silence. After which time the Ceann Comhairle will blow a whistle, raise his right foot in the air and throw in the Leader of the Opposition.

Controversial? The Seanad might have offered some valuable advice on the matter, but it wasn’t in session. The Easter recess ends for senators next Tuesday.

Not that many around Leinster House noticed. Because back in the Dáil, they were adopting a somewhat confused attitude to morning silences.

Reflection in the form of 30 seconds of schtum is acceptable. (The prayer is a different matter, although it is should be easily retained in tomorrow’s vote.)

However, another form of silence has been proving an embarrassment to TDs of all stripe. This is the echoing nothingness which envelops the place of a morning when members decide to come in early to debate what they insist are matters of national importance requiring urgent ventilation in the national parliament.

This decision to start proceedings a couple of hours earlier than usual is usually reached following a lot of roaring and impassioned speeches demanding emergency speaking time on pressing issues.

However, and this is not uncommon, when the day dawns for this much-requested debate it can’t go ahead because there aren’t enough TDs present to make a quorum. Without a quorum (20 bodies) business cannot begin.

A bell is sounded throughout the Leinster House complex calling deputies to the chamber. Eventually, enough people straggle in to get proceedings under way.

One of the most recent, most embarrassing examples of this happened when the Dáil convened a few hours before its usual midday start to discuss the Tuam babies scandal. The revelations were the talk of the nation, and led to hours upon hours of fulminating across the airwaves from TDs who demanded more time to discuss it in parliament.

Yet, across all the parties and the Independents, they found it impossible to muster 20 of their number when the time came.

This sort of thing brings an unwelcome and accusatory silence for members.

Fresh resolve

What to do about it? Make it in a little earlier to address issues of national importance when they arise? Gain fresh resolve to listen and contribute to significant discussions? Distribute a roster along with a few alarm clocks? Take their own words seriously when they bang on about special debates?

There were no objections when it was proposed to cut the number of TDs required to make up a quorum from 20 to 10. This change is designed to spare the blushes of TDs

The Dáil Business Committee acted decisively in this regard last week.

They made changes to the relevant rule – Standing Order 21.

There were no objections when it was proposed to cut the number of TDs required to make up a quorum from 20 to 10. This change is specifically designed to spare the blushes of TDs who know it doesn’t look good when proceedings they specially requested can’t start because not enough of them have turned up.

It only applies to debates before midday on Wednesdays and Thursday, which is when business ordinarily kicks off with Leaders’ Questions. After that, the number required reverts to 20.

Leaders’ Questions draws a bigger crowd. Those in attendance were treated to Micheál Martin describing Minister for Health Simon Harris as “a rabbit in the headlines....headlights”.

He was right the first time.

After that, and even though it was the first day back after the Easter break, the rest of the day ground on in achingly dull fashion.

And at 10pm, while the questions about the Christian Prayer – very topical, given the row over ownership of the new maternity hospital – were debated, the decision to halve the attendance required in the chamber for special debates in the morning didn’t have to be discussed.

It had been waved through by all on the nod, without debate.

Silence, you see, isn’t always golden.

Miriam Lord

Miriam Lord

Miriam Lord is a colour writer and columnist with The Irish Times. She writes the Dáil Sketch, and her review of political happenings, Miriam Lord’s Week, appears every Saturday