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Dublin: 15 °C Wednesday 30 July, 2014

10 things I learned in my first term in the Dail

Independent TD Stephen Donnelly’s guide to life in Leinster House: “Like jumping onto a fast-moving train, blindfolded, whilst balancing a full tray of drinks…”

Stephen Donnelly

IF A WEEK is a long time in politics, imagine how long a full first term in the Dail feels for a first-time TD.

Stephen Donnelly, independent deputy for Wicklow and East Carlow, has learned several lessons in his rollercoaster first four and a half months in Leinster House: Give out your mobile number, realise that some politicians’ bark is worse than their bite – and don’t blow up balloons in the car park.

Helium balloons can blow up in your face.

Or in the Minister for Agriculture’s face (well, his officials’ in this case). We helped run a protest against the cuts to Special Needs Assistants and, wanting it to be child friendly, we organised face painting and helium balloons (which went down a treat). Half an hour before the demo, the team were inflating balloons in the Department of Agriculture car park (which is where our office is, next door to Leinster House).

Unfortunately, nobody noticed that the spot they’d chosen to inflate the balloons was the Minister’s reserved parking spot. Cue arrival of a rather put-out official, looking to park in a hurry, only to find the space occupied by 100 pink helium balloons.

“Surprise!” shouts a quick-thinking young volunteer. “Happy birthday!” Alas, an official complaint was made. Seriously.

Give your mobile number to the media.

On day one in the Dáil, a friend with some knowledge of these things warned me to be careful about giving out my mobile phone number. Unfortunately, this warning was still fresh in my ears when I was stopped on the corridor by one of the country’s leading political correspondents. He introduced himself, and asked for my number. I apologised, but said I didn’t really want to give it out. Within minutes, he’d got it from another journalist; by that evening, I was being badmouthed in the Dáil bar; and next morning, it was in the paper. Oops.

Words matter.

During the campaign, I argued that the Irish “bailout” was actually a net transfer of wealth from us to the French and Germans, rather than the reverse. That was ridiculed by many at the time; it’s now seen as common sense. (The next step in that debate is to convince the German and French public.) Slowly, I think this is feeding into policy. I was also ridiculed for saying I believed that independent TDs could hold the government to account. We’ve no real legislative power, but we do have a platform, and I think it can be used to make a difference.

They’re always watching.

I was warned by an old hand during my first week: “In Leinster House, you’re always being watched”. Last week proved the case for me. At a four-hour sub-committee meeting, a small number of TDs went through the detailed spending estimates for the new Department of Public Sector Expenditure and Reform with Minister Howlin. Right at the end, I commented on the fact that nearly every spending item had increased over 2010. Within an hour my remarks were on the RTE website, and I discussed the situation early the next morning on Morning Ireland. Four hours.

The Dáil is an echo chamber.

The phrase “Dáil debate” is an oxymoron. For the most part, there is no debate: the norm is a pretty dull series of scripted speeches by politicians who aren’t listening to each other, and aren’t even talking to each other – they are talking to their constituents, or some lobby group, or (they hope) to the media. There are exceptions of course, but they are exactly that.

I would love to know, since the formation of this new Dáil, how much legislation or Government policy has been changed based on input from the Chamber. Reform of the whip system, and of Dáil procedures, would greatly increase the quality of debate, and therefore the quality of our democracy.

Relationships are typically better than they seem.

In the media, and in the chamber, politicians often go on the attack: they can be scathing of each other, even contemptuous. And then, in the corridor outside, in the canteen, in the studio after the show, it’s often as if it never happened – they’re friendly, offer advice, solicit your opinion. So far anyway!

The Dáil is dysfunctional.

The Dáil’s primary function is the debate of legislation. Legislation is complex (often mind bogglingly so). So in order to research and debate legislation properly, you need to know what the legislation is – in advance.

But the Dáil schedule for legislation to be debated is prepared week to week, and released to us on a Thursday or Friday – compounding the other problems with the Dáil not being a serious debating chamber.

Old habits die hard.

There is a sense of openness about this Government – that they’re open to ideas and contributions from outside their own ranks. But then it comes to appointing the members of the influential Houses of the Oireachtas Commission, which basically runs the place: there are two opposition places on it, and both went to Fianna Fail. Clearly, they intend nobody to be rocking that boat.

It doesn’t stop. Except for the summer.

The past few months have felt like jumping onto a fast moving train, blindfolded, whilst balancing a full tray of drinks, debating the speed and condition of the train with the driver, and all the while trying to look like everything is under control. It is incredibly busy (and exciting, challenging and rewarding). I never really understood the summer recess… I get it now. I think there’s a general sense around the place of people looking forward to a pause, at least in legislation.

Politics can work.

There is a huge amount of energy, enthusiasm and talent on the corridors of the Dáil – from those of all parties (and none). This is a Dáil of unprecedented freshness. I may be naïve, or I may be accused of succumbing to Stockholm syndrome.  I hope not.  I hope my initial instincts are correct, that this Dáil really can make politics work better? You be the judge.

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