Seán Barrett hopes to be remembered for being fair

TDs praise former ceann comhairle who says it was an honour to hold the position

As history was made yesterday with the election of ceann comhairle by secret ballot, Seán Barrett quietly took his seat on the Fine Gael backbenches.

Mr Barrett was stepping down after five years in the chair and passing on the baton to Fianna Fáil TD Seán Ó Fearghaíl.

The Fine Gael TD for Dún Laoghaire had a difficult and often turbulent time as ceann comhairle. He was warned of motions of no confidence and was often criticised for his contrarian style.

Barrett claims it never got personal.

“When you go into that chamber it is a debating chamber and sometimes you get stuck into the person opposite you, and there might be heated words and all the rest of it, but once you come out that door you leave it behind.

“You don’t carry grievance or your own personal disputes around here. I learned that very early on in politics.”

As Ó Fearghaíl took his position TDs across the House praised Barrett for his time as chair despite many of them clashing at times.

He had little patience for TDs who he believed were breaking the rules of the House. This was not confined to the Opposition benches, and he often lost his temper with the members of his own party.

He insists his relationship with Enda Kenny over the appointment of the Dáil clerk in 2013 was not damaged, and claimed reports of rows between the two were "absolute rubbish".

No problem

Barrett said there was a dispute over the appointment of the clerk of the Dáil but insisted that never stretched to Kenny.

“It was nothing to do with me having a difficulty with the Taoiseach. I had no problem.

“That was the one problem about being ceann comhairle. Things are said about you and you can’t say a word. That is one of the problems you have to deal with. That story was untrue.”

Barrett did take issue with Ministers refusing to come to the chamber to answer topical issues from backbench and Opposition TDs.

He said it was “wrong”, and he made his feelings known to several Ministers.

Barrett also criticised the decision of Sinn Féin to try to table a motion of no confidence in him several times.

“That was game-playing. That was to deflect attention away from themselves. It wasn’t to do with me . I didn’t do anything. There were difficulties at the time and it was a convenient way of deflecting attention.”

Barrett also became the first ceann comhairle to face legal action. Businessman Denis O'Brien is taking a case against him and other members of the Dáil's Committee on Procedure and Privileges (CPP). O'Brien is alleging they treated him unfairly for finding Independent TD Catherine Murphy did not break Dáil privilege when she made claims about the businessman in the Dáil.

Accusations

Barrett says: “Mr O’Brien might not have liked what she said but that doesn’t mean she abused her privilege.

“I wouldn’t like parliament to have a free rein of making accusations about people. I wouldn’t tolerate that, but there are going to be things that are said that people don’t like. Mr O’Brien misunderstood what we [the CPP] did.

“We were not judging what she said. We were judging whether she broke standing orders, and our legal advice was that she did not.”

Despite all the controversies and disputes Barrett hopes he will be remembered for two things.

He oversaw the introduction of Oireachtas television and the revival of State-recognised bravery awards.

Barrett hopes people will remember him for those measures and for being a fair and impartial chair.

“I am 71 now. I have four grandchildren, and I hope stepping back from the position will allow me to spend some more time with them.

“It has been the greatest honour. Only a small per cent of what we do is in the chamber. You are representing your country as speaker of the House and there is a great deal of patriotism there.”

Any advice to your successor? “Be as fair and as impartial as you can and enjoy it. It is a great honour.”

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