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Dublin: 12 °C Monday 22 December, 2014

Column: Stephen Donnelly TD answers 10 questions he’s frequently asked by the public

Are Dáil holidays too long? What do TDs do all day? And what’s the food like in the Leinster House canteen? Independent TD Stephen Donnelly answers some of questions most frequently asked of TDs.

Stephen Donnelly

1. What have you done for me in the last 6 months?

That depends who you are, but hopefully there’e beeen something! Here’s a flavour of some of the things I’ve been working on over the last six months:

Legislation: I introduced the Family Home Protection Bill, the essence of which made it into the Personal Insolvency Bill. This will provide substantial new protections to tens of thousands of people around the country who are being squeezed by the banks. It’s something I’m very proud of.

Finance Committee: My interrogation of Permanent TSB a few weeks back made it onto the front page of the Irish Times Business Section. Specifically, it reported my accusation of rent gouging of variable rate mortgage holders. My hope is that this sort of political and media pressure helps keep a focus on the public interest aspect of what the banks are doing.

Policy: I have been highlighting the destruction of the third level education sector in Ireland, including a 50% cut in per student funding. Watch this space – this is becoming the single biggest threat to Ireland’s status as a wealthy country for the next 30 years.

Wicklow: I’m working with local organisations on an enterprise strategy, to reverse some of the damage done and to revitalise a local, innovative businesses environment.

Individual: I helped secure critical funding for the support of a severely disabled teenager. Kudos to Kathleen Lynch for her work on this.

2. What do you do on a daily basis?

Here’s what a typical Wednesday might look like:

07.00 to 08.00: Onto the exercise bike, listen to Morning Ireland & scan the news online. Discuss a wide range of pressing issues with my 2 & 3 year old boys (like who’s better – Fireman Sam or Bob the Builder?).

08.00 to 09.15: Drive into Leinster House: Sit in traffic, listen to the radio, phone calls with the team on day’s agenda.

09.15 to 10.15: Arrive in the office. When I’m in the Oireachtas, I’m based in the department of Agricuture. The Independents don’t get the cool offices close to the corridors of power.

We are out the back near the cupboards of influence. I start with meetings on policy, press releases, analysis and constituency issues.

10.15 to 11.15: Over to the Dáil to sit through an episode of ‘How to avoid answering questions’ – also known as Leader’s Questions.

11.15 to 14.45: Tactical coffee, back to the office to prepare for Dáil speech, Finance Committee, media appearance, etc. I reagularly meet with industry groups, NGOs and interest groups on anything from offshore drilling to anti-competitive behaviour to philanthropy. This is followed by lunch, replying to correspondence, reviewing the answers to recently submitted parliamentary questions, and maybe losing a vote in the Chamber.

14.45 to 18.00: Finance Committee. Recently it’s been banks, public service pensions, the Troika and whistle blowers.

18.00 to 19.30: Coffee, back to the office, prep for speech, head to the Chamber to listen to other speeches, deliver speech and listen to a few more.

19.30 to 21.00: Back to the office for reading, correspondence, and maybe the odd spot of pondering (e.g., how are we going to save our universities?).

21.00 to 21.20: Vote in the Chamber on the week’s Private Members Motion. These are tabled by Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil or the Technical Group. They are always lost to a Government counter motion which invariable looks like this: ‘To delete the entire motion from the Opposition and replace it with some tripe saying that there is absolutely nothing to worry about, no mistakes have ever been made on any issue, everything that could conceivably be done on the issue at hand is being done, and the Government and Civil Service are so awesome that to attempt to contemplate their brilliance would cause a nosebleed.’

21.20 onwards: This depends on what’s happening on any given week. I could be driving home, out to RTÉ for the Late Debate, or out to chat with Vincent Browne in TV3. Home sometime between ten and one.

Leinster House. (Photo: Brood_wich/Flickr/Creative Commons)

3. Are there too many TDs?
Yes, and most are not getting to use the experience and passion they bring to the job. There are 76 new TDs in the Dáil and they are there to serve their country. The Dáil is badly broken, and despite promises of ‘a democratic revolution’, this Government is clinging to a centralised power structure just like last the last crew. I would halve the number of TDs and seriously consider single seat constituencies and a list system. Radical reform is needed.

4. Why do TDs get so much for a travel allowance?
I don’t know. I’ve handed back half of what I’m ‘entitled’ to. It is reasonable to cover the travel and accommodation costs of anyone who’s travelling for work, but the amounts need to be reviewed and vouched. I’d say part of the reason it’s probably higher than necessary is that there are other work-related expenses as a TD which are not refunded in any other way, so this allowance was padded. Needs urgent review, as do the allowances across the public sector.

5. Are the holidays too long?
Depends what you mean by ‘holidays’. The Dáil has been in recess for two weeks now, and I’d say I’ve dropped my working week from 65 to 40 hours.

Should the Dáil recess be shorter? A year ago I would have said definitely. Now I’m not so sure. The job is far more intense than I had expected. You really do need time away from the goldfish bowl that is Leinster House. And you also need time in the constituency.

6. Where will you be going on your summer holidays?
Doolin, County Clare. Some of the best trad music on earth, perfect pints, long sandy beaches and impromptu parties. Lots of time with the boys. And books – I’m actually going to get time to read novels, starting with the Girl Who Played with Fire.

7. What’s the food like in the Leinster House canteen?
Very good, and the staff are brilliant, especially when you realise at 8pm you’ve forgotten to eat all day! I’d like to see some healthier stuff added – it can be pretty heavy on the carbs and butter.

8. Is it hard for Independent TDs to change things?

United Left Alliance TDs Richard Boyd Barrett, Clare Daly and Mick Wallace with Independent TDs Shane Ross, Catherine Murphy and Mattie McGrath (Photo: Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland)

It’s hard for any TD to change things. The system is designed to resist change (for some good and some bad reasons). Some civil servants view Dáil Éireann as an inconvenience to be managed while they get on with the serious business of running the country. The stronger Ministers manage to impose at least some of their vision on their Departments: others don’t.

Similarly, a number of Ministers are openly contemptuous of Dáil Éireann. They seem to think that they are elected to rule, their backbenchers are there to vote as they’re told, and the Opposition is a collection of criminals, idiots and lunatics. Pat Rabbitte’s ugly outburst a few days ago on the (democratically elected) Opposition is an example of this arrogance at its worst.

9. Do politicians only ever socialise with other politicians from the same party?
I don’t know – I’m not in a party, I live at home (that is, I’m not up in Dublin two nights a week in a hotel) and I have two young boys, so I don’t get to socialise professionally much. I think it’s pretty tribal when it comes to nights out, but certainly TDs from any party and none would sit down for coffee on a daily basis. I’ve had excellent pints with some fantastic TDs from across the parties. It’s an odd professional dynamic – a few months ago a Fine Gael TD and myself walked over to Newstalk together, knocked lumps out of each other on air, then went and had dinner together.

10. Does the current committee system work?
Some are better than others. I’ve been very impressed by the Justice Committee. The Finance Committee, which I’m on, is beginning to find its voice. However, the control which the Cabinet exerts means that no Committee can do what it’s meant to do, which is to hold an individual minister to account. In reality, the Ministers control their respective Committees.

Stephen Donnelly is an Independent TD for Wicklow and East Carlow. See: http://www.facebook.com/DonnellyforWicklow and  http://www.stephendonnelly.ie

Read: More columns by Stephen Donnelly >

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