Miriam Lord: ‘Votegate’ takes a backseat as fobbing fever grips the Dáil

Do TDs fob each other into the chamber? Lt Columbo aka Paul Murphy cracks the case

‘Just one more thing, ma’am . . .’ If the Solidarity-People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy's hunch is right, then ‘Fobgate’ could put the War of the Buttons into the ha’penny place. Photograph: John Ohle for The Irish Times

‘Just one more thing, ma’am . . .’ If the Solidarity-People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy's hunch is right, then ‘Fobgate’ could put the War of the Buttons into the ha’penny place. Photograph: John Ohle for The Irish Times

 

We don’t wish to alarm anyone, but Votegate may be only the tip of the iceberg.

As the War of the Buttons simmers along gently, awaiting the results of a second investigation into dodgy voting practices by some TDs in the Dáil, another outbreak of “gate” fever could be just around the corner.

Twice this week in Leinster House, we heard a nod and a wink reference to a thing called a fob, and the related act of fobbing by TDs and Senators who are enthusiastic fobbers.

Fibbers, surely? No, we are not talking about the flimsy explanations furnished by Fianna Fáil buttoneers Niall Collins and Timmy Dooley about their “one man, many votes” approach to parliamentary democracy. Thursday’s transcripts of their interviews with Oireachtas investigators filled us with nostalgic yearnings for the halcyon days of the Flood and Mahon tribunals and its delightful parade of innocents.

The War of the Buttons (we’ll get on to the fobs later) consumed Leinster House all week.

The inimitable Julie in the canteen was handing out fun-sized packets of chocolate buttons to TDs on Thursday to remind them of their constitutional duties. On Thursday morning, a glum-looking Ceann Comhairle came in for his breakfast after the meeting to sign off on the report into the voting travesty. Julie materialised at his shoulder. “There you are now, Ceann Comhairle. Here’s a nice little packet of buttons for you.” Seán Ó Fearghaíl nearly choked on his sausage, he laughed so much.

It was no secret that research teams in the main parties were feverishly combing videos of Dáil footage to see if they could nab rival TDs breaking the voting rules or disprove similar charges against some their own.

Settling old scores

The zeal with which Fine Gael has gone after Fianna Fáil, its confidence and supply partner, piling on the outrage and calls for sanctions, was as much about settling old scores as inflicting damage before a general election. They were doing it for Frances (Fitzgerald) whom they believe was hounded from office by Fianna Fáil. And doing it for backbencher Maria Bailey – well, not so much for Maria but more for Fine Gael and its dented image after her “swing-gate” episode.

It was like being trapped in one of those self-absorbed Seanad debates about Seanad reform

One aspect of the report on the voting breach which particularly annoyed some TDs was a perceived inference that “everyone is at it”. They are not.

A striking feature of the Dáil session on the controversy was the partisan, pot-stirring approach taken by the three largest parties compared to the constructive, grow-up-and-get-over-yourselves response from smaller groups and Independent deputies.

Eighty minutes set aside to talk about themselves and what they do. This explains the very rare sight of a full car park in Leinster House on a Thursday afternoon. It was like being trapped in one of those self-absorbed Seanad debates about Seanad reform they hold every so often in the Upper House.

So to the fobs. Socialist Paul Murphy threw them into the discussion. There was a surprisingly muted reaction, given what he was alleging, save for a few disapproving clucks from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

The fob is a little electronic keyring-type device which Oireachtas members use to clock in for duty. They touch it off one of the many small terminals placed all around the complex. They are not required to clock off.

Paul had been doing a bit of investigating on the voting front. Isn’t it interesting, he mused, that the five seats implicated in the voting shambles are on the FF front bench, which is always in the camera shot? What about the seating in rows further back?

“If someone on the third, fourth or fifth bench was to be engaged in this practice, it would not be picked up by the camera, we would not have Votegate and none of us would be any the wiser. Are there deputies in Fianna Fáil on the later benches who have engaged in this practice and they just haven’t got caught? Is it a widespread off-camera practice?”

He then moved onto motivation.

Allowances

Why would Timmy Dooley want somebody to vote for him when he isn’t in the chamber? Could it be to build up his appearances to 120 days to qualify for his travel and accommodation allowances?

But no, concluded Sherlock Murphy. That would be wrong. It would be because he wants to be seen voting on issues so nobody can accuse him of having a low voting record and he can say how he voted.

We all know that there is a system for fobbing in here for 120 days a year in order to get your full allowance

But wait. Murphy does the old Lieutenant Columbo trick. About to move on having seemingly satisfied himself as to motive, he returns to the scene. “Just one more thing, ma’am . . .”

About those expenses? “That begs another question” he began.

“We all know that there is a system for fobbing in here for 120 days a year in order to get your full allowance. That is not subject to any camera check and is even more open to abuse than the voting system. Is it the case that TDs are getting other people to fob in for themselves at these systems in order to get up to the 120 days? Because if TDs are willing or able to get other TDs to vote for them when they are not in the Chamber, well, then why on earth wouldn’t they be having someone fob in for them to be able to clock up for their expenses?”

An intriguing question. And all the more so because it was the third reference we heard during the week to these fobs. On Tuesday, amid banter over the buttons, a Fianna Fáil politician joked to us: “Never mind the electronic voting, don’t let them get onto the fobs.”

Ha’penny place

The following day, a Fine Gael politician, out of the blue, tells us in a conspiratorial whisper (not mentioning any names, of course) that Votegate is only in the ha’penny place and to try to get the lowdown on the fobs.

And then Paul Murphy says his thing on Thursday.

Fobgate (if it exists) is impossible to prove, our suspicious friends tell us. Is there not CCTV at the tap-in points which could be used to check if someone is fobbing in for a colleague? Yes, but it is strongly rumoured that there is no camera in at least one particular location.

So, in the, er, unlikely event of fob impersonation taking place, who can contradict the officially-present-while-absent TD or Senator from saying they registered in the camera-free zone?

Seven members of the Oireachtas (along with Senator Ian Marshall, who was elected during the accounting period) were denied the full amount of allowances last year because they didn’t put in the required 120 days. They all had decent excuses.

They were Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty and Jonathan O’Brien; Solidarity’s Mick Barry and Gino Kenny; Thomas Pringle of Independents4Change and Independent TD from Clare Michael Harty. The Senator is Independent Pádraig Ó Céidigh.

All members of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, the largest grouping of deputies and Senators by a long way, fobbed in the required number of days.

Simply more disciplined, as the events of the last couple of weeks show.

Spare a thought for our travel-weary MEPs

Busy day in the European Parliament on Thursday for our four Fine Gael MEPs. So much work to do before having to steel themselves for the horrific journey across town to make the airport in time for their flights home.

Such tales these brave members of Fine Gael could tell. What horrors they have seen. Sometimes, they might miss the plane and have to take the next one. Sometimes, they don’t even get the chance to enjoy a bit of grub before commencing the final leg of their gruelling voyage back to Ireland, packed into stinking jets dressed in fetid business suits while clinging to their belongings in pathetic cabin-sized carry-on bags.

And don’t get them started on the hellhole that is Brussels. The traffic there is torture too. Although the moules frites with a little bit of mayonnaise and a cold local beer can sometimes ease the pain.

So spare a thought this morning for Seán Kelly, who joined with European parliament colleagues (Frances Fitzgerald, Maria Walsh and Mairead McGuinness) and fellow members of the European People’s Party to vote down a resolution supporting EU search-and-rescue missions in the Mediterranean and expressing solidarity with people fleeing war and persecution.

Seán had a lot on his plate after casting his vote, as he tweeted after the event.

One of the reasons Fine Gael sided with the Brexit Party and other hard-right groups was, apparently, to prevent further pressure being put on overstretched NGOs. In the aftermath of the vote, international NGO Oxfam described the rejection as “shameful”.

Kelly paused courageously in the middle of his ordeal to post a picture of his burger on Twitter

There was also a view that the act of rescuing desperate, drowning people from the sea would create a “pull factor” encouraging other migrants to have a go.

When the vote was lost by a tiny margin of two, applause erupted in the hemicycle from the far right groupings. In recent dispatches, the FG MEPs who sided with them said they were disappointed by this reaction.

Arduous journey

But back to Kelly, MEP for Ireland South, who, having done his duty by the migrants, set off on his own arduous journey across land and sea, pausing courageously in the middle of his ordeal to post a picture of his burger on Twitter.

And very nice it looks too. The Red Cross is getting very fancy with the food parcels these days.

Beneath the snap of Sean’s juicy burger (iceberg lettuce, caramelised onion sauce and a brace of big rashers on top) and chips is the following post: “What a difference a driver makes! Last Monday it took the bus 3½ hrs from @Airport_FRA to @Europarl_EN in #Strasbourg . Today, on same size bus, the reverse journey took 2½ hrs. As a result, I have even time for a #burger before boarding @Ryanair flight to Dublin. Nice!”

Oh, the humanity.

Seán and colleagues probably didn’t participate in the second round of applause in the chamber following the first outbreak of cheering from the people they sided with in the vote. It was for Juan Fernando López Aguilar of Spain’s centre-left PSOE party, who spoke in sorrow.

Barry could have cast his own vote and then voted for Billy in his absence. It’s all the rage in Fianna Fáil

“In a day when we are mourning the death of 39 human beings, victims of the human trafficking networks, we regret the deaths on the roads, the deaths in the Sahara and the deaths in the sea, we regret also that for two votes it was not possible to express a solidarity message – not only to those who lost their life in the sea but also to the Member States for their search-and-rescue operations. I feel very sorry about that, Mr President.”

Flight home

Fianna Fáil MEP Billy Kelleher missed the vote too because he had to leave the proceedings early to get to Frankfurt airport in time for his flight home. But he says he would have supported the motion supporting the saving of drowning refugees had he been able to stay.

His precious vote was another casualty of Brexit. Billy’s party colleague Barry Andrews is currently languishing in one of the two “cold storage” Irish MEP seats which will come into play when the UK leaves the EU. Had Barry been there he could have cast his own vote and then voted for Billy in his absence.

It’s all the rage in Fianna Fáil.

Independent MEP Clare Daly didn’t vote either, and at the time of writing she hasn’t said why, although she was reportedly seen in Dublin on Thursday evening. Her close political partner, Mick Wallace, voted for the motion along with Greens Grace O’Sullivan and Ciarán Cuffe, Sinn Féin’s Matt Carthy and independent Ming Flanagan.

But really, Seán Kelly’s thoughtless tweet was the pits. But it could have been worse. At least he didn’t go the full Marie-Antoinette and post a photo of a big fat slice of cake.

Nice.