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TGIF: How have the Dáil’s Friday sittings worked out?

As we approach the end of another Dáil term, we’ve been asking the government and the opposition how the much-vaunted sittings of the Dáil on the first Friday of every month have been working out.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

WHEN THE CURRENT government swept to power in a historic election win last year there was much talk of reforming the way we do politics in Ireland.

Among that talk was that the Dáil would sit more often. There would be fewer holidays, more time devoted to debating and passing legislation and lawmakers would work harder in these austere times. In the 16 months since it took office there is no doubt that the Dáil has sat more than under the previous administration but some that has not been enough.

One of the key changes along with a reduction in the amount of recess time over Christmas, Easter and summer is that the Dáil sits on the first Friday of every month with the idea that this day is devoted entirely to allowing opposition parties, the Dáil Technical Group, and government backbenchers to introduce their own legislation without the need for government assent. TDs usually put their bills into a hat and one is selected at random for debate.

Back in February, Fianna Fáil’s Bill Kelleher was hugely critical of the sittings as a “meaningless, pointless episode” saying that “no meaningful business is being done” and criticising the lack of a presence from government ministers on Fridays. His comments came as the Irish Independent reported that day that over a fifth of government TDs were organising constituency clinics instead of attending a Friday sitting where Independent TD Stephen Donnelly’s legislation on homeowners in mortgage difficulties was to be debated.

The government voted down that legislation and said they would be bringing forward their own in due course but the government minister in attendance, Alan Shatter, also took issue Kelleher’s remarks in the chamber: “We had on the airwaves this morning Deputy Kelleher of Fianna Fáil talking about this all being a sham, none of this was serious but he assured the nation that he was going to be present in the House for this important debate.

“Well, deputy [Dara] Calleary was here but he was the only representative of Fianna Fáil who was here… If he [Kelleher] wants to make silly, political charges to get himself some personal headline perhaps he would do it on an issue that he intends to contribute to.”

‘Smack in the face’

Unsurprisingly, the government feels the criticism of its reforms to Dáil sittings are unwarranted and unfair. Government Chief Whip Paul Kehoe made the case to TheJournal.ie this week: “Some of the people who have criticised them have had bills themselves on a Friday. It is a smack in the face if you criticise it but you are using it. If they’re not getting anything out of it then why are they using it?”

Kehoe claims that the Dáil has sat around 42 per cent more than it did under the last administration and says there have been a huge number of deputies on all sides of the house who have put their own bills into the hat from which a bill is selected for debate on the first Friday of every month.This allows more opportunities for legislation coming from the opposition side of the house to be debated in the Dáil beyond the usual rotation of Private Members’ time which usually comes up for a party or the Technical Group every three weeks.

The aforementioned Stephen Donnelly can see the benefit: “I brought through an important bill using the Friday sitting. The bill wasn’t passed, but it was then represented to the Justice Committee who used it as part of their first recommendation on the Personal Insolvency Bill. So thanks to the Friday sitting, the protection of the family home is strengthened in the Personal Insolvency Bill and a version of my Family Home Protection Bill is also included.”

But for Niall Collins, Fianna Fáil’s newly appointed justice spokesperson and a TD since 2007, the Dáil is not sitting nearly enough. He says that if the chamber is to convene on a Friday than it should be a full sitting with the opportunity to put questions to Ministers, raise topical issues, hold committee hearings and have the Seanad in session too. “The point I am making is this: they are ticking a box and trying to give a presentation that it’s a sitting day,” he told TheJournal.ie.

“But committees aren’t sitting, there’s no questions, no topical issues. All this is is a second stage discussion of an opposition bill which, with the exception of one, have all been voted down the following Tuesday. If we’re going to have the Dáil sitting and the cost associated with it then we must have all aspects of it functioning and not just the optics.”

The exception Collins refers to is the rare outbreak of bipartisanship in the chamber just over a week ago when the Fianna Fáil proposed bill to expand the remit of Freedom of Information legislation was given government support. ”That was a very good debate, it was an excellent debate, with some extremely good contributions. The quality that is coming forward is quite good,” Kehoe added.

He also dismissed claims that it is costing a huge amount of money – some estimates put it at around €90,000 – for the Dáil to stay open on a Friday: ”It’s absolute rubbish. The Dáil is open either way on a Friday. The only extra thing you are doing, you have the chamber open and a number of staff. These staff are in the building either way and the more you use a chamber the less it costs. That’s the way I would put it,” he said.

‘Blatant misrepresentation’

But Collins believes that the opportunity for the Dáil to sit on a Friday is not being utilised to its full potential and dismisses the percentage of extra sittings that Kehoe has outlined.

“It’s not being utilised to its potential. The government are trying to create a representation that it is a sitting day and it’s not. It’s a limited forum of parliamentary exchange. They issue you with stats that include that as a sitting day. It’s a blatant misrepresenation, they’re massaging the figures,” he said.

As for the future, Kehoe says there are no plans to increase the number of days the Dáil sits beyond the time it already spends debating and passing legislation. The Dáil now rises this coming Thursday, 19 July to return in September.

The Chief Whip hopes to develop plans in the next term to introduce two bills for debate on a Friday instead of the current one and he is no doubt that the reforms he championed are working.

“If you look at the Dáil it is sitting longer as well. The last number of weeks, it has sat until 10pm every night and on occasion it has sat later as well,” he said.

“The general public out there have seen that the Dáil is working better and more effectively than it was in the past. We are getting more legislation through, there’s not as many guillotines as what there was, people get an opportunity to speak on legislation and the Dáil is working better, longer and more effectively.”

But for Collins even the possibility of extra legislation being introduced on the first Friday of every month will not be enough: “I am in favour of a full sitting of the Oireachtas on a Friday at full capacity, the government being present and us having a fully functioning sitting.”

Read: Friday Dáil sees bipartisanship as Govt supports FOI legislation

Read:  Dáil sittings on a Friday are ‘a slap in the face of reform’ – Fianna Fail TD

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About the author:

Hugh O'Connell

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