John McManus: Why we should resist efforts to rein in Dáil privilege

The squabbling post Paul Murphy’s acquittal is a small price to pay for an open forum

Just before the close of the last century I worked briefly as a political reporter in Leinster House. Part of the job involved sitting in the press gallery and watching the proceedings of Dáil Éireann on the days it was sitting.

It was pretty dry stuff and conducted in a deferential and convoluted manner. Not least because outside of set-pieces such as Leaders’ Questions any effort to hold the government to account on a day-to-day basis had to be linked in some way to legislation being discussed in the House. The contrast with the knockabout debating that characterised Westminster was marked to say the least.

Lamentably, the TDs at the time seemed to see the soporific nature of the Dáil as one of its great strengths. In their view the theatrics that characterised Westminster debates elicited no useful information from the government and ultimately demeaned the business of politics.

Lacklustre though it may have been, the Dáil was a more grown up place, they argued. They also believed that the dignified way it it carried out its business was respectful of the electorate, who had not voted them them in for entertainment but to look out for their – often parochial – interests. It was hard to agree with them and even harder not to conclude that the limp nature of Dáil proceedings was really just the logical outcome of a parliamentary system whose members were more focused on using their office to look after their constituents’ problems, rather than holding the Government to account or scrutinising legislation.

Livelier place

The current Dáil is a far livelier place. As was the one that preceded it. This is due in the large part to the activities of left of centre and also Independent deputies who have shown that you can win votes by using the Dáil to raise issues of public concern.

They have relied very heavily on Dáil privilege – absolute protection from being sued over what they say – to raise matters which might otherwise never have been ventilated. Mick Wallace's campaign over Nama and Catherine Murphy's revelations about Denis O'Brien and Siteserv are two standouts.

Back in the 1990s, if you asked a TD why they did not use Dáil privilege to highlight matters of public interest – and there was no shortage as it was the time of Ansbacher Accounts and planning tribunals – the response was that if they did the Dáil would quickly descend into to a free for all, with politically motivated allegations being routinely made. Their prediction would seem to have been proved correct when you look at the carry-on earlier this month between the Taoiseach and Solidarity TD Paul Murphy.

The exchange followed Murphy's acquittal on charges of falsely imprisoning former tánaiste Joan Burton and her adviser during a 2014 water charges protest. Murphy accused Taoiseach Leo Varadkar of defaming him by claiming in the Dáil that "it may well be the case that the deputy was not engaged in kidnapping, but it was thuggery and your behaviour was wrong" before going on to add that "the protest was ugly, it was violent, it was nasty".

He has also taken exception to remarks made by Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan, TD Bernard Durkan, Minister of State for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O'Connor and Minister for Arts Heather Humphreys.

Spot of bother

Murphy is also in a spot of bother himself over remarks he made in the Dáil. The Ceann Comhairle is seeking legal advice about whether he abused Dáil privilege when he accused three gardaí of “co-ordinated perjury”.

It is hard to see how the dignity of the Dáil is enhanced by this or how the public interest is being served. Not surprisingly, the Ceann Comhairle is examining whether he can enforce tougher sanctions for those who abuse Dáil privilege. One thing being considered is whether TDs should be automatically fined a week’s wages.

If the objective is to return the Dáil to the state of public irrelevance it enjoyed before Independent deputies tumbled to the the power of Dáil privilege, that would be a mistake. While this might allow TDs get on with the job of getting themselves re-elected it would not be great for public accountability.

The squabbling and name-calling that took place in the Dáil post Murphy’s acquittal was both pointless and in its own way banal. But it is a small enough price to pay for a forum in which important issues of public concern can be ventilated by a public representative without fear of retribution from powerful vested interests.

And as for demeaning the Dáil? Well the real damage is done by the deputies that collect their salaries and expenses and don’t bother turning up in the chamber to hold the Government to account or scrutinise legislation. Not the ones testing the limits of Dáil privilege to raise important issues.