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Dublin: 19 °C Saturday 26 July, 2014

Reply: Our parliamentary process is open and accessible

Mark Mulqueen, Head of Communication in the Houses of the Oireachtas, writes.

Mark Mulqueen

WRITING IN THEJOURNAL.IE yesterday, Sarah O’Neill of Dáilwatch.ie said that while debate arounds TDs’ expenses is welcome, it should be just one part of a larger conversation around transparency in Irish politics in general.

You can read O’Neill’s full article here.

Today, Mark Mulqueen, Head of Communications in the Houses of the Oireachtas, replies:

TO BE CLEAR, the call for an independent body to determine the pay and allowances provided to those we elect to our national parliament was proposed by Kieran Coughlan, Secretary General of the Houses of the Oireachtas. He did so at a recent Houses of the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee meeting.

In an article on www.thejournal.ie Sarah O’Neill joined others in repeating the call as part of a wider series of comments about the resourcing of the Irish parliamentary system.

Sarah makes many of the progressive comments we have heard before. She says, “This debate around TDs’ expenses should become part of a larger conversation around transparency in Irish politics in general, rather than simply a weapon with which to attack our political representatives”. Indeed. Unfortunately, by ascribing a simplistic and wholly negative headline to Sarah’s article, TheJournal.ie could not resist doing the very thing she called on the media to desist from doing!

By the by, we are obviously not so good at being secretive when one considers that details of all Oireachtas salaries and allowances are published on the Oireachtas website here.

In fact, a headline like “Secrecy around TDs’ expenses is typical of Irish political culture” is actually more typical of Irish political commentary. It is about as intelligent and useful to any meaningful conversation as the old canard ‘they are all in it for themselves’. Neither slogan is true despite how often they are inferred and implied to by our public commentators.

Sarah goes on to observe that “the secrecy around politicians’ allowances is indicative of a broader, national acceptance of the inaccessibility of government affairs and perpetuates the notion that Oireachtas business is a distant practice, inconsequential to the everyday lives of ordinary citizens”. Another baseless if populist comment.

Of course the intermixing of government affairs with parliamentary affairs is a common fault of Irish commentators but it doesn’t excuse the fact that the level of public engagement with the Irish political and parliamentary process is actually quite high. If Oireachtas business were actually a “distant practice, inconsequential to the everyday lives of ordinary citizens”, the national media wouldn’t be encamped in Leinster House day after day pumping out hours of commentary about what happens in it. The fact is that Irish people are renowned for their high level of interest and participation in politics. Moreover, those whose job it is to sell newspapers and the advertising that sustains the media, know this. This is why so much space in our media focuses on parliament and politics. (Note how slender the newspapers are in the weeks when the Dáil isn’t sitting.)

In fact I would go further and argue that Irish people know very, very well how consequential to their lives the business of the Oireachtas is. This is why national protests are made at the gates of our national parliament and not somewhere else; this why we are constantly serving the demand from the public and public interest groups to access Leinster House; this is why we have 100,000 visitors every year and this why our parliamentary committees spend a huge amount of time meeting and engaging with the widest possible representation of public groups and bodies.

You probably won’t read it in a newspaper or hear it said on the radio or TV, but our parliamentary process is very open and accessible. Not only can every one of us both watch every minute of Oireachtas business live and read the record of the parliament on-line, citizens are also constantly invited to contribute to the Oireachtas business directly via the committee system. Far from being secretive, every aspect of Oireachtas business is in public, it is accessible and it’s actually participative.

There is great public frustration and anger abroad. This should not be taken as a license for some to simplify public scrutiny of the political process or to debase public discourse to a negative, one-dimensional portrayal of our parliament and the role of its members. That’s not in the public interest.

(Note from Susan Daly, TheJournal.ie editor:

There was also a subhead on Ms O’Neill’s article which expanded on the issue. It read: “Yes, expenses need reform – but we need a larger conversation too.”

On the subject of transparency on political expenses, the Oireachtas website does list the amounts claimed by each TD and senator and what each is entitled to at every grade of the political spectrum. However, the lack of breakdown of the spends, the practice of unvouched expenses and the need to invoke the Freedom of Information Act – which is not yet a free service – to get further clarity in some cases does not make it as transparent as it could be. This, in effect, is why PAC – as advised by the SG of the Houses of the Oireachtas, as Mr Mulqueen points out – recommends that “all expenses incurred should be fully vouched and receipted”.

It is appreciated that the business of the Houses has been opened up to the general public via online livestreams and public meetings, but it is not the case the whole of political life in Ireland is open to the public, which is why I believe the headline on Ms O’Neill’s article to be relevant.

She argues that the lack of transparency in the breakdown of how expenses are incurred and the public (and yes, media) interest in that issue reinforces, rightly or wrongly, the perception that political discourse as a whole is not entirely accessible to the man or woman on the street. Relevant, yes, but something which they feel they have an influence on past the results of a general election? No. That, I would think, is why people resort to taking a protest to outside the gates of Leinster House.

On a positive note, addressing failings in the expenses regime which – noted – falls under the remit of a Government department rather than Oireachtas business, will surely only help to improve the public’s relationship and interaction with political culture as a whole.

Incidentally, TheJournal.ie publishes a daily Oireachtas agenda which – thanks to information available from Oireachtas.ie – highlights what is happening in the Houses on a given day, and shows how to access livestreams.)

Previously: Column – Secrecy around TDs’ expenses is typical of Irish political culture, by Sarah O’Neill>

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