Ill-founded accusations against Ceann Comhairle

Seán Barrett upheld standing orders while ensuring a commission of inquiry

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Seán Barrett has attracted many complaints in a Dáil composed of very competitive opposition groups and a large Government majority. The role of Ceann Comhairle as an impartial arbitrator has always been difficult but this latest charge of political bias is ill-founded. Standing orders prohibit any debate that may “encroach on the functions of the Courts” and former minister for justice Alan Shatter had just initiated proceedings in the High Court.

In not allowing debate, Mr Barrett upheld standing orders while ensuring a commission of inquiry can now proceed to fulfil its terms of reference. That will involve an examination of the role played by Mr Shatter in responding to allegations of Garda malpractice made by Sergeant Maurice McCabe. Had the Ceann Comhairle acted otherwise and TDs gone on to engage in normal political condemnation, the inquiry might have unravelled under further court challenges.

By leading a walk-out from the Dáil in protest against this ruling, Micheál Martin, Gerry Adams and a number of Independent TDs created the impression Mr Barrett had favoured a former party colleague or, alternatively, was in cahoots with the Government. They were understandably furious Mr Shatter had denied them an opportunity for publicity with what they regarded as a gagging writ. But they ignored the big picture. The former minister’s attempt to forestall the commission of inquiry had failed.

Seán Barrett has never been noted for his diplomacy. An old-style politician, he is direct, short-tempered and has been lumbered with a thankless job. When newly appointed, with the job of running Dáil business “without fear or favour”, he set about raising additional “standards”. It was a mistake. His attempt to impose a dress code, involving a tailored jacket and collared shirt, on TDs like Mick Wallace and Luke “Ming” Flanagan foundered when he failed to secure Government support. And when live television coverage brought an increase in heckling and interruptions on the Order of Business, he publicly lectured Government and Opposition TDs about their “shouting and roaring” and “incredible” behaviour. It didn’t go down well.

Such an attitude is understandable in view of Mr Barrett’s obligation to keep order in the chamber. But room should be made for occasional uproar and the discomfiture of ministers. His relations with party leaders are said to be cool. But they are below freezing with Sinn Féin. The party deliberately targeted the Ceann Comhairle for criticism last year in an attempt to deflect pubic attention from the Mairia Cahill controversy. Mary Lou McDonald garnered extensive publicity by disrupting business and engaging in a four-hour Dáil sit-in. Small wonder, then, that Fianna Fáil and Independent TDs joined Sinn Féin in a rush to the plinth to ventilate their complaints.

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