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Seán Barrett and a young Bertie Ahern in 1983 Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland
State Papers

TDs worried about impact Dáil TV and radio broadcasts would have on their dignity

Here’s how the current Ceann Comhairle, Seán Barrett, played a key role in opening-up the Dáil to broadcasters.

TDS WORRIED ABOUT the impact that broadcasting of Dáil proceedings would have on their dignity and their protections under parliamentary privilege in the years before mics and cameras were allowed into the chamber, documents reveal.

Papers released by the National Archives this month plot the long path towards eventual broadcasting of proceedings in 1983 following reforms introduced ironically by the current Ceann Comhairle of the Dáil, Seán Barrett, when he was the government chief whip in 1983.

Over the last three years, Barrett has spoken enthusiastically about the Oireachtas TV channel on UPC and has regularly chastised TDs for their rowdy behaviour in the Dáil chamber when proceedings are being broadcast on live television and online.

Files released under the 30-year rule include newspaper clippings from February 1971 with an Irish Press report quoting then Taoiseach Jack Lynch as stating clearly that Dáil proceedings should not be televised as it could give rise to “showmanship” from some deputies.

“I have no deputies in mind, but there would be some temptation,” he said.

Later that year, RTÉ pressed the government and more specifically the Oireachtas Committee on Procedures and Privileges (CPP) to consider allowing broadcasts – on TV and radio – of Dáil debates particularly those on the white paper concerning Ireland joining the European Economic Community as it was to do in 1973.

In early 1972 a memorandum went to government on the matter but it decided against considering such proposals following a recommendation from the CPP whose majority Fianna Fáil members were opposed.

The CPP again considered the matter at a meeting in July 1973, but records reveal how Fianna Fáil opposed the measure with one deputy stating that broadcasting proceedings “would not add to the dignity of the House and Members could leave themselves open to abuse”.

Budget broadcast

But by 1982, the Fine Gael-led coalition appeared far more open to the idea of RTÉ broadcasting proceedings with a memorandum recommending that the CPP be advised to approve RTÉ broadcasting the Budget for that year and the initial response from the opposition, Fianna Fáil.

It was Seán Barrett who put forward the motion on 3 February 1983 that the Dáil approve the broadcasting of the Budget statements on radio, which was approved by TDs without a vote.

Documents from April 1983 note a brief discussion about checking the microphone system in the Dáil to ensure it was capable of providing “quality suitable for radio transmission” – a problem that continues to this day.

In June of that year, a memo to government stated that RTÉ had been carrying out experimental records of Seanad proceedings and that approval was being sought for similar trial Dáil recordings.

Concern was noted by one official about the impact on the principle of parliamentary privilege – where a politician is protected from prosecution over statements they make in the houses of parliament.

“The attorney general may also need to be consulted because of the potential loss of the protection parliamentary privilege when proceedings are transmitted directly to a national audience,” the official noted.

In November 1983, then Industry and Energy Minister John Bruton told the Dáil that RTÉ had deferred the submission of a detailed memo and a mock-up tape to the CPP and had wanted to actually broadcast proceedings from the Joint Committee on Legislation on an ‘experimental basis’. However the CPP told the broadcaster that it should comply with the request.

Bruton said that the government “are committed to the broadcasting of the work of the Oireachtas and it is the intention that this broadcasting will reflect the overall work of the House on a balanced basis as between plenary sessions and committee work”.

It would not be until 1990 that television cameras would be allowed inside the chamber on a regular basis, broadcasting the statements on Budget 1991 as a young Michael Noonan harangued the Fianna Fáil government over its financial measures.

This YouTube video is one of the earliest Dáil recordings showing a row over organising time to debate a now infamous TV exposé of the Irish beef industry that would lead to the establishment of the Beef Tribunal:

See National Archives, Reference TK 2013/100/97

Ceann Comhairle tells TDs: ‘Go and watch television to see what it sounds like’

Read: ‘You’re an embarrassment on television!’: Ceann Comhairle slams TDs amid angry Dáil exchanges

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