IT IS CALLED the Summer Recess and has been happening since the first government of the Irish State but it was never designed as a holiday for TDs and senators. For nine weeks from mid-July to mid-September the members of government and opposition stop meeting together in Leinster House on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays for the purpose of voting on legislation but in pretty much all other areas the work of government continue as usual. If anything, the working week of a TD becomes longer and more varied during this time.
We may not be physically casting votes on proposed legislation over these nine weeks but the work of Leinster house does not stop. TDs continue to read and draft new legislation for the autumn, study public submissions, write committee reports and meet constituents and public interest groups.
I’ll be focusing on helping victims of domestic violence
One area that I will be dedicating a lot of time to studying over the next few weeks is the issue of new policies and legislation to assist victims of domestic violence. Back in June I wrote in TheJournal.ie seeking submissions from the public to inform a report on domestic violence, which I am drafting as Vice Chair of the Oireachtas Sub-Committee of Justice, Defence and Equality. The report will play a part in forging future legislation and policy in an area that affects one in five Irish adults and their children, many of whom suffer in silence.
The response to my public appeal was substantial. As well as the expected detailed submissions from the official organisations and charities that help the victims of domestic violence, more than one third of the people who made formal submissions are private individuals – who took the time to put pen to paper and tell the committee about their personal experience of the current systems in place to protect people from a violent partner or ex-partner.
A useful ‘target date’ for the passing of key legislation
During the current break from Dáil voting, I will have the time to sit down quietly and read thoroughly the submissions and associated correspondence and then commence the work of the report. When the Committee regroups after 18 September, we will discuss the submissions and decide on the timing of any oral hearings and discussions with experts and interested parties that may be necessary to do this job properly. Having a break from Dáil voting allows well-deserved attention to be focused on this and other important issues that are currently in my office in-tray.
The beginning of the summer recess has also always provided a useful ‘target date’ for the passing of key legislation that might otherwise linger. A case in point is the recent Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill.
It took 21 years since the Supreme Court ruled on the X Case for that ruling to be brought as legislation through the Irish houses of the Oireachtas.
There was some criticism of the Taoiseach’s decision to keep the Dáil sitting until 5am to facilitate, prior to the summer recess, the necessary debates on both the legislation itself and the unprecedented number of proposed amendments. But after campaigning all of my political life for safe and legal access to abortion services for Irish women, the minor inconveniences associated with sitting in the Dáil chamber until 5am were more than welcomed by me.
Considering that the Dáil routinely meets until 10pm in any event, the addition of a few extra hours at the end of a 21 year wait was no big deal.
But make no mistake, to be part of the only government brave enough to initiate and pass this Bill was a very big deal and hopefully it won’t be very long before it becomes an Act on our Statute Books, giving some extra clarity to doctors who need to make decisions to save women’s lives.
It sadly won’t be enough to protect cases like the tragic story reported recently of the woman who died in a taxi in England after travelling from Ireland to have an abortion there. It goes without saying that she would have been safer under medical supervision in an Irish hospital. But it is a start of a long road ahead to give Irish women the choices that women in other developed countries have as a normal part of their laws.
Talking to constituents is a vital part of democracy
As well as working on reports and proposed new legislation I will take the opportunity to spend more time with constituents over these next weeks. It is never a chore to drive around beautiful Wicklow and east Carlow, and for TDs to get out of Leinster House and talk to the people we are actually working for is a necessary and important part of how a good democracy works.
I do plan to take two weeks of private time during the Dáil summer recess. People who live with TDs need some time off too. We will spend our break in Ireland, catching up with family and friends that I haven’t seen for a while. It would be nice if the weather held up, but you can’t legislate for sunshine!
Anne Ferris is the Labour Party TD for Wicklow and East Carlow. She is also Vice Chair of the Oireachtas Sub-Committee for Justice, Defence and Equality.