Oliver Callan: TDs need a moral code, not a dress code
If privilege allows them to say what they like, it should allow them to wear what they like
‘In hand-me-down wool blazer and red tie, clutching a holy book, my communion photo made me look like Mormon-meets-mini-Tory. I was delighted with myself and the suit has served as camouflage ever since.’
‘They are frequently drunk in Leinster House, even during votes. The garb that befits this level of ‘dignity’ is an orange jumpsuit.’ Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
The Dáil Committee on Procedure and Privileges is considering a new dress code for TDs. The current rule is a little vague “ . . . that Members should dress in a manner which reflects the dignity and decorum of the House”.
For decades, this has been taken to mean a suit for men and anything that makes a woman look like a sort of Bean an Tí version of Margaret Thatcher.
Dáil members should dress according to the dignity of the office?
TDs throughout history have bribed, cheated, groped, lied and broken promises. They are frequently drunk in Leinster House, even during votes.
The garb that befits this level of “dignity” is an orange jumpsuit and manacles. Our elected betters need a moral code, not a dress code.
Why is a suit considered the height of dignity anyway?
For a TD, elected by working classes or the unemployed, a suit is the last thing that would best represent them.
Enforcing what old-fashioned elites consider appropriate is an anachronistic correction. A suit is not just a symbol of authority – but evil, too.
Dracula and the Nazis were always well turned out.
Air of authority
I remember the first time I wore a suit. First Holy Communion Day, 1985. I knew instantly that this foreign outfit provided costumed relief from the dung-stained uniform of farming.
To my imagination, a suit transformed me from farmhand to wealthy gent. Or, as my seven-year-old self might have called them, a Protestant.
In hand-me-down wool blazer and red tie, clutching a holy book, my communion photo made me look like Mormon-meets-mini-Tory. I was delighted with myself and the suit has served as camouflage ever since.
The school once gave me a specially-commissioned blazer for debating contests against posh kids who wore them for real.
The fear was that if I showed up in a Patrician High School grey geansaí, the boys from Clongowes might order me to starch their collars or bring them swan’s blood by mistake.
The BBC used to keep a dinner jacket on its radio studio door so the newscaster could slip into it – and an air of authority – during a bulletin.
You behave differently in a suit. It straightens the back, tidies the step and has you handle objects more daintily as if the suit itself scolds poor posture and etiquette.
It’s a sartorial impersonation of importance. The suit is so contrived that purposeful “dressing down” is required to appear relatable.
Like when the US president rolls up his sleeves at Camp David. What’s Hillary Clinton going to do?
Walk around in a man’s shirt or eat ice-cream in pyjamas? It’s what advertisers seem to think is the international symbol of a woman relaxing.
In my Monaghan childhood, the only ones who wore suits were people in old photographs who seemed to farm in a shirt and tie.
They must’ve held doors open for pigs and doffed the cap at cows chewing the cud in the haggard. And corpses.
Our neighbour Jackie Kerr died in the early 1990s and the first time I saw him in a suit was at his wake. The dead have a better dress code than the living.
There was no doubt Jackie was a gentleman. He smoked Sweet Afton and drank tea with a saucer. First, he would tip the Pyrex mug of tay into the saucer and slurp from it, but still, he used a saucer.
Jackie taught me humour, character and the gift of having an imaginary friend. He lightened life when my nine years weighed heavily on my feet. The old man had true class and didn’t need a suit on his way into the ground.
The other chaps who wore suits were the bank managers who kept calling to our house to tell my father he needed to sell the farm to cover debts.
I recall it now with some bitterness, knowing as we do that these besuited cretins were also writing off the debts of other suited men. They were linked by a herringbone-patterned delusion of dignity.
I was once sent to cover a Dáil committee as a young reporter wearing a hoodie and jeans.
Within five minutes of entering the press gallery, a Dáil usher called me politely outside. His manners deserted when we were alone.
I had broken every etiquette of the House, was a disgrace to journalism and should leave at once.
He was technically correct, of course, and I deserved the subsequent reprimand and humiliation in the newsroom for being thrown out of parliament.
Only later would my undignified dress code breach be worn in honour.
Trying to correct the Irish predilection for coarseness betrays who we are.
Many TDs have taken relaxed dress to such lows they look like they’re queuing for soup in the 1970s.
However, they wouldn’t be true to themselves – or their voters – if they wore suits or went for Theresa May’s Ziggy Stardust-does-Debenhams look.
Pretentious suit-wearers, such as this writer, might wish for a formal wear Dáil, but the parliament is supposed to represent everyone.
If absolute privilege provides them the important democratic protection to say what they like, it should allow them to wear what they like.
Besides, if you impose a dress code, TDs would only add tailors’ bills to expenses. You can’t even trust that shower to dress themselves.