A kind of hush as backbenchers make their absence felt


Dáil Sketch:Apart from turning up to vote, backbenchers were thin on the ground in the Dáil yesterday.

That post-budget backbencher feeling, described by one as similar to that experienced by turkeys voting for Christmas, may well have kept them in their offices. Exposure to the public gaze is not a comfortable place for a Fine Gael or Labour TD these days.

There was no backbencher present to utter even a token heckle when the Opposition challenged Taoiseach Enda Kenny on the power wielded by the Cabinet’s Economic Management Council. It is made up of the Taoiseach, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore and Ministers Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin.

Fianna Fail’s Seán Ó Fearghail suggested the council was acting as a de facto cabinet. Joe Higgins, of the Socialist Party, went further, comparing it to a “Stalinist politburo”, concentrating huge power in a few hands and operating in great secrecy.

Higgins went on to ask the Taoiseach how it all equated with the democratic revolution promised at the beginning of the current Dáil. He suggested decisions on austerity were handed down and the role of the backbenchers was to show up and vote for them.

Kenny insisted the budget was approved collectively by the Cabinet. There had been face-to-face meetings between Howlin and each Minister.

He noted that those outside the Cabinet liked to write about what they thought went on in that historic Merrion Street room. While there had been occasions when some of it was true, recent headlines were very wide of the mark.

Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams said he was not surprised, because all the rumours and leaks implied that Labour stood up to Fine Gael. “I do not see any evidence of that.”

Howlin observed: “We could be court-martialled yet.”

Adams replied: “Deputy Howlin is pirouetting over the poor.”

Fianna Fáil’s Michael McGrath criticised the Government for using a parliamentary device much favoured by his own party when in power. He referred to the guillotining of the legislation paving the way for the property tax, which was not due until next July, he noted.

Kenny said McGrath was well aware that there was always pressure to get legislation through the House towards the end of every parliamentary session. Fianna Fáil, in power, generally offered the same defence.

A group of schoolchildren, clutching copies of the Proclamation, entered the public gallery as the Sinn Féin leader complained about cutbacks in education.

When Ceann Comhairle Seán Barrett advised Adams that his question would have to be brief, Independent Michael Healy-Rae appealed for seasonal goodwill. Healy-Rae was far from being in a seasonal mood later when he lambasted the Government on the property tax. He was as vocal as the Government backbenchers were silent.