Fine Gael and Labour TDs have worst activity rates in Dáil Éireann

‘Irish Times’ study finds FG’s Séan Conlan spoke in just 14 Dáil debates in 2014


Fine Gael and Labour TDs have the lowest activity rates – in terms of speaking time and written questions – in Dáil Éireann.

The number of written questions asked by individual TDs last year ranged from three to 3,000.

A study conducted by The Irish Times found Fine Gael’s Seán Conlan spoke in just 14 Dáil debates and committee discussions, and received 29 written answers to questions during 2014 – the lowest combined total of any member of the House for the full year.

Mr Conlan, who became embroiled in a public row with the Taoiseach’s office in October after details of a payment dispute over a €10,000 diamond ring were leaked to the media, is closely followed by Labour’s Dublin South Central TD Michael Conaghan.

Mr Conaghan contributed to 30 Dáil and committee meetings and received 15 written answers throughout the year, well below overall TD averages of 78 and 315 respectively.

Fellow Government backbenchers Helen McEntee (Meath East), Tom Barry (Cork East) and Joe O’Reilly, who represents the Cavan-Monaghan constituency alongside party colleague Mr Conlan, complete the bottom five performers in the combined category.

Mr O’Reilly said his role as leader of the Irish delegation at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg deprived him of greater speaking opportunities domestically.

Examined in isolation, the rate of activity for written questions reflects no more favourably on Fine Gael.

Party members Peter Fitzpatrick (Louth) and Ray Butler (Meath West) prop up the rankings, having received three written replies from Ministers and Government departments all year, compared to an average of 208 answers for colleagues.

Three contributions

Michael Lowry

When asked about his contributions, Mr Lowry said he did his speaking, “where it matters”, in his home constituency.

This is in stark contrast to other Independents, such as Clare Daly (Dublin North), Terence Flanagan (Dublin North-East), Finian McGrath (Dublin North-Central) and Michael Healy-Rae (Kerry South), while Fine Gael’s Bernard Durkan (Kildare North) comprehensively bucked his own party’s trend by speaking in 318 discussions and asking 2,937 written questions – nearly 10 times the Dáil average.

Mr Butler defended his minimal use of written questions by saying he preferred to seek informal answers to queries through contacts in Government departments, and that such questions were a “waste of taxpayers’ money” and a “lazy man’s way of getting a quick answer”.

Such assertions were strongly rejected by Mr Durkan, who views the questions as a “parliamentary duty”, which act as a valuable resource for receiving comprehensive and reliable answers.

Labour PLP chairman Jack Wall (Kildare South) and Fine Gael TD Tony McLoughlin (Sligo-North Leitrim), who spoke in 12 and 15 Oireachtas meetings respectively, both had to take extended leaves of absence due to illness last year.

Fine Gael TD Ms McEntee echoed Mr Butler’s sentiments, saying she doesn’t “speak merely for the sake of speaking”.

Fine Gael’s new Minister for the Diaspora Jimmy Deenihan (Kerry North-West Limerick) spoke in fewer Dáil and committee meetings than any other Minister, which he says could be explained by his frequent absences enforced by diplomatic trips to Britain, the US and Irish communities across the world.

Not counted

The Irish Times

On average, Sinn Féin members spoke in the most debates and discussions, and Fianna Fáil politicians posed the most written questions, areas where Labour politicians lagged behind other groupings within Leinster House including Coalition partners Fine Gael.

The statistics also illustrate a trend between Dáil attendance rates and the activity levels – in terms of speaking time and written questions – of TDs in the House.

According to latest figures at the end of November, TDs who regularly engaged in debates and asked the most written questions were most likely to have claimed the maximum 120 days’ of expenses. Conversely, those who rarely contributed to Dáil proceedings often failed to claim the full allowance before December.

The research was produced in collaboration with information made publicly available on the website, which tracks Oireachtas transcripts and records and converts them into statistics for individual TDs.

Deputies who only served for part of 2014 were omitted from the figures collated, as were the Ceann Comhairle and Leas Ceann Comhairle, while those who served in a ministerial capacity for part or all of last year were discounted from calculations on written questions as it is not within their remit to pose such queries. Values for verbal contributions cited in the research allude to the number of debates or discussions spoken in rather than the number of speeches made by TDs, and are not reflective of the frequency, length or relevance of contributions.

Commenting on the findings, Dr Eoin O’Malley, senior lecturer in political science at Dublin City University, said he was unsurprised by the totals recorded by some Government representatives.

“It’s not a surprise that Labour and Fine Gael are least likely to contribute to the Dáil. Being a Government backbencher is a pretty awful job. You have to end up supporting things, and you’re less inclined to want to make a contribution in a debate if you don’t feel you have any way of influencing it,” said Dr O’Malley.

“You’d probably see that people might influence more in parliamentary party meetings, and outside the public view. There’s no point in attacking your Minister because it’s not going to do your career any good,” he added.

As mentioned by Mr Butler in his reply, the topic of written questions tends to polarise opinions among the political classes. Oireachtas procedure stipulates that members of Dáil Éireann are entitled to submit as many questions as they like to any Minister or department and must receive some form of response, so long as adequate notice has been provided.

According to Dr O’Malley, the practice of forwarding constituents’ queries directly on to relevant ministers and departments, as is common among many of the Dáil’s most avid questioners, can serve as a valuable publicity exercise when used effectively.

“They’re able to go back to the constituent and say ‘I submitted this question’. The Minister knows that the TDs can’t do anything about it, and it’s just a mechanism to signal to voters that the TD cares about you,” he said.

“But it rarely, if ever, effects any actual change in the way that constituent’s matter is being treated.”