The usual row about the business of the week was in full swing.
Packed agenda. So much to do. So little time.
The Dáil, you see, rises for summer on Friday and won’t reconvene until September 20th.
The amount of work TDs have to get through between now and then is huge. Ordinarily, when a representative of the Business Committee announces the Order of Business for the week – a task which used to be the sole preserve of the Government Chief Whip – it takes a couple of minutes for them to run through it.
Yesterday, Sean Canney of the Independent Alliance did the honours. He was on his feet for a full eight minutes. When he sat down, having gone through a very heavy to-do list for the coming days, Deputies all on sides were smiling.
Perhaps it was down to the looming prospect of so many weeks of freedom from chamber duties. Or maybe it was because they knew that the argument about to start would not affect the eventual outcome.
They could huff and they could puff to their hearts’ content, secure in the knowledge that the House will still blow down come teatime on Friday.
And all the little Dáil piggies will run “weeee!” all the way home to their constituencies.
Procedural wrangles began over what some TDs saw as the unnecessary rushing through of legislation and motions. Joe McHugh, the Chief Whip, pointed out that the Order of Business presented by Canney had been agreed by the Business Committee.
Issue of contention
One issue of contention was the decision to change the status of our naval operations in the Mediterranean, with Ireland joining the EU's Operation Sophia. This needs to be ratified by the Dáil and a 40-minute debate has been scheduled.
Both Sinn Féin’s Aengus Ó Snodaigh and Labour’s Brendan Howlin objected over the lack of time given to TDs to consider the move.
The Taoiseach said the government had prepared a very short motion for consideration and there would be ample time to discuss it.
He added that the decision was taken on the advice and recommendation of the Defence Forces and the only thing delaying their participation in Operation Sophia was the Dáil's assent.
As the two Opposition TDs continued to press for more time, the Fianna Fáil leader intervened.
“I don’t think we can say that the Dáil is delaying an issue. If anything, the delay has been on the Government’s side. We are willing to facilitate this,” said Micheál Martin, graciously.
Across the floor, Leo Varadkar looked up and caught his opposite number's eye. "Thank you," he mouthed.
There was more argument over an amendment to the Planning and Development Bill. Green Party leader Éamon Ryan and Sinn Féin’s Eoin Ó Broin felt it was being forced through with indecent haste. There was a lot of back and forth on the matter, with the Chief Whip sighing once more that the Business Committee had already agreed the process.
Ó Broin insisted TDs hadn’t enough time to scrutinise the legislation properly and check for unintended consequences. “It is not appropriate to try to railroad this legislation through all stages in a few hours.”
Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy explained that this “very short Bill” was debated and considered at length at committee. “It speaks to one particular issue, which is the second extension of planning permissions.”
‘Respect the intention’
With Ryan and Ó Broin continuing to object, Micheál Martin looked to the benches behind him. "Deputy Cowen wants to come in," he indicated, whereupon his housing spokesman stood up and said that while Fianna Fáil isn't mad about the way the Government is handling the Planning and Development Bill, they "respect the intention to bring forward this aspect of it immediately in order to have it approved by the Dáil and the Oireachtas to allow developments continue at pace".
And Leo shot another grateful glance across the floor.
Micheál Martin, a veteran of many manufactured hissy-fits in the phoney wars before the Dáil goes on long breaks, was growing weary of the arguing.
“I might have to unleash the nuclear option,” he declared with a grin.
They all knew what that meant. The leader of the Opposition could press for a further sitting week – at the very least – to allow TDs the time they were demanding to discuss these issues.
Sinn Féin, disagreeing with the proposal to take the legislation before the recess, called for a vote. Not surprisingly, they lost.
Members of the new Dáil were mightily pleased with themselves when a ground-breaking all-party committee was formed to agree a business timetable for each week.
It would stop the bickering about issues they wanted to bring forward and who would get to speak and for how long. Sitting times and adjournments would be settled beforehand and all political groups – regardless of relative voting strength – could expect a fair crack of the whip when it came to introducing legislation and participating in the business of the Dáil.
Membership of this committee was not weighted in favour of the biggest parties.
This was the New Politics in action.
All bicker and no bite.
The Government, with little argument from Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin, the next two biggest voting blocs, look set to abandon the experiment.
The weekly timetable, thrashed out in private each Thursday and voted upon by the Business Committee, has spawned a weekly row. It happens at the start of every Dáil week when TDs, notwithstanding with the previously agreed schedule, take their complaint to the chamber anyway.
Democracy, it seems, is all well and good, but only if the decision goes their way.
But one decision went through without as much as a murmur yesterday.
Funnily enough, when the Ceann Comhairle asked if there were any objections to Friday’s business, there wasn’t a squeak out of anyone.
“The Dáil shall sit at 10am to take the business outlined above and shall adjourn not later than 6pm. The Dáil, on its rising, shall adjourn until 2pm on Wednesday September 20th 2017.”
When it came down to it, nobody wanted to trigger the nuclear option.