Regina spectre: Halloween break returns to haunt Chief Whip
Dáil Business Committee has no business thinking that it can guide Dáil business
FF chief Micheál Martin let the cat out of the bag last week while Government Chief Whip Regina Doherty had her sights set on any monkey business. But Mattie McGrath proclaimed himself disgusted
The Dáil Business Committee has no business deciding Dáil business as if it were a legitimate body chosen by the Dáil to order its business, when everyone knows the actual business of the Dáil is nobody’s business except that of the two main parties and they only agreed to go along with this new-fangled business-by-consensus business because they wanted to appear more mature and businesslike in their approach to Dáil business.
Everybody in Leinster House knows that.
The Fianna Fáil leader let the cat out of the bag during last week’s row over who should really control what happens in the Dáil.
“It’s not democratic that political parties with two, five or seven members get exactly the same amount of time to speak as political parties with 23, 44, 50 or 57 members. Time must be allocated proportionately,” said Micheál Martin.
On Tuesday, his colleague Billy Kelleher burnt the bag so the cat couldn’t get back in. “The Business Committee is unrepresentative,” he shouted at the end of a farcical session of shouting and roaring over a decision made weeks ago but which only now seems to have come to the attention of the main parties.
The undemocratic nature of this cross-party association wasn’t of concern to Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil when they agreed to its establishment and nominated their representatives to sit on it. For people in the business of democracy, it’s worrying that they only began worrying about it months down the line.
The Dáil Business Committee was launched with universal blessing when the dust settled after the general election. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil thought it was a great idea.
But after a few decisions the big boys haven’t particularly liked, they’ve changed their tune and want to return to the old ways.
Up until midnight
Last week’s row was over the committee’s decision that the Dáil would sit until midnight on two consecutive days to discuss the budget. There were complaints this wouldn’t have been necessary if the House had begun work in the morning, instead of beginning in the afternoon.
But this early start, which was agreed by all sides on the Business Committee, was in response to TDs who felt the work of Dáil committees was being constantly overshadowed by proceedings in the Dáil.
So they got their time in the sun – not that they got much attention anyway.
In the meantime, it was decided that the Dáil would rise for the Halloween midterm break, as it always does. After all, the kids are on holiday and what better time to book a quick getaway somewhere warm?
Chief Whip Regina Doherty met the Business Committee the week before the autumn session resumed at the end of September. There had been so few sittings since the Government formed, she suggested that Halloween might be cancelled this year. No midterm break for TDs.
No chance. There were objections and the suggestion was rejected.
All this happened a month ago. Holidays were booked – not just by politicians, but by staff in Leinster House and even some journalists.
In the meantime, there have been newspaper articles about Doherty’s abandoned plan and how TDs, who have spent precious little time going about the business of legislating since the 32nd Dáil started, baulked at the prospect of turning down another break.
People have been talking. So on Tuesday, after the Business Committee’s meetings had taken place and the members made their decisions on behalf of the House, the leader of Fianna Fáil objected most strenuously to the notion that the Dáil will not sit next week.
“Sending out the wrong signal completely,” he raged, demanding that business continue as usual.
“I – we – have issues with this,” said Martin, as his colleagues cast doubtful looks at each other.
What sort of signals was Fianna Fáil getting? They must have been smoke signals, sent when the wind was blowing in the wrong direction.
However, Micheál picked up other signals on the wind and discussed “issues”. This might explain the decision to oppose the Business Committee’s decision.
And it all seemed such a good idea when New Politics was all the rage in the olden days earlier this year, when the minority Fine Gael government and Fianna Fáil, its political underpinning, wanted to showcase its conciliatory credentials.
The Chief Whip was annoyed. She set out the schedule for this session, suggested sitting for Halloween “but I was overruled by practically every other member”. Micheál Martin didn’t think so. He said he checked with his people.
Doherty was equally adamant. She told him what was agreed at the business meeting was on the record, if he cares to check. So she added a sitting instead in Christmas week. That really went down well.
So the Dáil took a vote and, by a thumping 111 to nine (not exactly a full House) TDs make the heroic decision to soldier on into next week.
Some of them looked very annoyed. Labour’s Brendan Ryan, who sits on the Business Committee, went over to Martin as they waited for the vote to take place and seemed to be remonstrating with him. There was a lot of waving of hands.
Then Fianna Fáil’s John McGuinness and Bobby Aylward came into the chamber. They didn’t look best pleased either. We heard later that the deadline for spreading dung on land is coming up at the end of next week and farmer Aylward had other plans for his time.
Then the Taoiseach and Martin spend ages talking to the Leas-Ceann Comhairle, with the clerk of the Dáil listening in and Doherty leaning in. They seemed to be examining a document.
The Government, having supported the Halloween break, had now voted against it and their much vaunted Business Committee – shining symbol of the New Politics – lay shattered.
One of the members, Mattie McGrath, was disgusted. “What’s the point of having a Business Committee if we are going to come in here and make a populist decision to overrule it? That’s all it is; nothing else.”
Strange days indeed, when the great populist McGrath rails against populism and has most of the Dáil in agreement with him. (They voted as they were told.)
“It’s farcical,” he kept shouting. “Farcical. The Business Committee has been undermined.” Labour’s Brendan Howlin agreed: “It has no function.”
As for Doherty, she sighed that she was in the strange position of getting what she asked for weeks ago, when everyone else in the room was against it, “including Fianna Fáil”.
So, they will be back next week. But on Wednesday, because there is a bank holiday on Monday and they don’t sit the day after a bank holiday and . . .
They may yet cancel Christmas.