Miriam Lord: ‘Votegate’ double-voting controversy rears its ugly head again

Fianna Fáil was hoping no one would mention the War of the Buttons two years later

Here’s your hat and don’t let the votegate hit you on the way out.

That was the verdict of voters in Clare in 2020 when Fianna Fáíl's Timmy Dooley failed to retain his seat after three terms on the trot in the Dáil. His role in the "Votegate" double-voting controversy a couple of months before the general election was seen as a factor in his downfall.

But that’s ancient history now. Or is it?

Apparently not.


While Timmy's Dáil career was scuppered in the aftermath, an internal Oireachtas investigation into the incident is alive and well. Former Fine Gael TD Noel Rock made a complaint to the Dáil's Committee on Members' Interests in October 2019 after Dooley was recorded as having voted six times in one session even though he wasn't in the chamber at the time.

It subsequently emerged that his colleague Niall Collins, who voted in the adjacent seat, had pressed his colleague's button as well as his own.

A raft of investigations followed along with contrite apologies from Collins and Dooley. The Ceann Comhairle and Clerk of the Dáil looked into the affair and took a very dim view while the ethics committee dithered its way into the following year.

A general election was called in January.

Timmy Dooley lost his seat but Micheál Martin threw him a lifeline with a Taoiseach’s nomination to the Seanad. Then Covid struck. The new Coalition Government wasn’t formed until June.

Everybody forgot about the War of the Buttons.

But at this week’s meeting of the Committee on Parliamentary Privileges and Oversight (formerly the Committee on Procedure and Privileges), Votegate reared its head again.

The Ceann Comhairle told members that representatives of the Seanad Committee on Members’ Interests have requested all official documents and video relating to the complaint made against then deputy, now Senator, Dooley. Under the ethics act, if an election happens while a case is still active and the TD involved is re-elected, the investigation transfers to the new Dáil.

A parliamentary legal advisor explained to TDs on Wednesday that if the person under investigation is subsequently elected to the Seanad, then the legal duty to investigate moves over to the Upper House.

The oversight committee agreed to grant the Seanad committee access to all the material gathered so far by its Dáil counterpart. No doubt Senator Dooley is delighted.

It's been two years since Votegate, so it's easily forgotten that Noel Rock also lodged related complaints against Niall Collins and Barry Cowen.

Presumably this means the complaint against Collins and Cowen is still active too? If so, when will the outcome of the carried-over investigations be known?

Because Fianna Fáíl will be delighted to have the embarrassing electronic voting saga dragged up for an airing once again.

Sitting Senator

David Norris has been framed.

He didn’t do it.

A portrait artist did it, egged on by members of the Seanad Independent group.

We understand that David, who holds the title "Father of the House" as the Seanad's longest serving Senator, has been given a sneak preview of the work commissioned by his colleagues in his honour. It will be presented to him by Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl at a special ceremony on Wednesday in Leinster House.

We’re not sure if it has a title.

"A portrait of Senator Norris executed by artist William Nathans" certainly has a touch of the Caravaggios about it, but the finished painting should be less dramatic than what is promised in the invitation. One of Nathans's recent commissions is the official portrait of Susan Denham, the first woman chief justice of Ireland, which hangs in the King's Inns.

David's fellow Independent group members, including Victor Boyhan, Rónán Mullen, Michael McDowell, Sharon Keogan and Gerard Craughwell, organised the portrait to mark his contribution to Irish society and his "phenomenal" work in the Seanad. Mark Daly, Cathaoirleach of the Upper House, will attend the unveiling along with representatives of the various groupings and parties.

Trinity provost Prof Linda Doyle is also expected, along with a small number of the distinguished sitter's family and friends.

The Senator has been doing a lot of sitting these days.

In July, in his final engagement as provost of Trinity College, Patrick Prendergast unveiled a portrait of university senator Norris. It now hangs in the anteroom of the Provost's House, near a portrait of former chancellor Mary Robinson. They graduated from Trinity in the same year.

This got some of the Senators thinking.

“Maybe we could hang David in Leinster House,” mused one of them. “I love saying that.”

Of course, Norris can do what he likes with his portrait. But there is a feeling, particularly among his Independent group colleagues, that the man who holds the record for the longest continuous period of service should have his own spot on the wall near the Seanad chamber, which boasts a very fine anteroom.

That decision would rest with the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, which is chaired by the Ceann Comhairle, who is doing the honours on Wednesday.

We expect a spot to be cleared.

Robinson’s routine

Before heading to Glasgow for the Cop 26 climate summit, former president Mary Robinson was in Dún Laoghaire last Saturday evening to launch journalist Flor MacCarthy's fascinating and highly entertaining new book, The Presidents' Letters: An Unexpected History of Ireland.

Guests at the event in the DLR Lexicon perhaps got more than they bargained for when the guest of honour produced an exuberant star turn, performing what one delighted observer described as “a 30-minute stand-up routine.”

No disrespect to Prof Robinson, but she wouldn't be well known for her wicked sense of humour or for doing funny voices. A touch on the aloof side, some might say.

Not so last week. Mary was on a roll at the launch, cracking out the one-liners as she waved the book around while peppering her speech with vignettes from various presidential lives. Her audience was both startled and delighted.

“Nobody’s ever seen the like of this before,” said our source close to the canapes, in tones of disbelief.

Right enough, you don’t expect to hear former president Robinson impersonating a scandalised politician who wrote to taoiseach WT Cosgrave in 1937 complaining about uppity women.

Something would have to be done about “suffragette agitation”, urged former government minister JJ Walsh in his letter. During the foundation of the State these women got above themselves and “their poisonous fangs were everywhere in evidence”. “It is time the wheel was reversed,” he wrote.

Mary Robinson liked “poisonous fangs” so much she repeated it twice, in what she imagined was JJ Walsh’s accent.

She also read from the memo sent by Douglas Hyde's secretary Michael McDunphy back in 1944, revelling in the detail of what was described as a precedent-setting meeting between president Hyde and taoiseach Éamon de Valera. De Valera had arrived in the Áras at a very late hour to seek a dissolution of the Dáil.

The president's secretary had to cycle from Clontarf on his bicycle at very short notice. When he arrived he discovered that the meeting was convened in the 84-year-old president's bedroom.

To much hilarity, Robinson revealed a previously unknown fact: “I just want to assure you that if the meeting place was regarded as setting a precedent, it was a precedent not followed by me.”

As her audience cracked up, she deadpanned: “I worked with four taoisigh, and I can assure you I never met anyone of them in my bedroom.

Never, never, never. No! No!”

Apparently her timing was perfect.

The Presidents’ Letters has been described as “a treasure trove” of hundreds of letters, memos, cards, telegrams, drawings, notes and photographs assembled by the author, most of which have never been published before.

The book, already into its first reprint, is published by New Island Books.

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