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Aaron McKenna: We need our politicians to behave themselves in 2015

The Oireachtas descended into the anarchist’s cook book in 2014 – and it threatens to break our democratic system.

Aaron McKenna

THE OIREACHTAS IS a sometimes interesting and insightful place, when parliamentarians bring great insight or personal experience to bear on an issue of the day.

We have witnessed members speak frankly and movingly in recent years on topics such as child abuse, abortion, homosexuality and the ravages of economic downturn. There are days when members of the Dáil and Seanad make a difference through the strength of their contributions, and they are days to make you proud.

Then there are the other days. The majority of days, in fact; when the Oireachtas does all that it can to remind you of Winston Churchill’s famous words, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others we’ve tried.”

On the occasions when the house is full, usually to coincide with prime time TV cameras being switched on, the shouting and roaring around the place is an embarrassment. There is not a mutually exclusive group of members who make top class contributions and those who act like teenagers engaging with a substitute teacher in school. Most TDs and senators seem to descend into childish antics from time to time.

This is a disgrace, but it’s nothing new nor is it exclusive to Irish democracy.

What has been changing particularly in 2014 is the level of disruptive behaviour from members of parliament. It seems that certain members of the Dáil in particular are becoming convinced that it is their mission to grind all proceedings to a halt; abuse parliamentary privilege and disregard and even explicitly break the laws of the land they oversee.

Many of the privileges that parliaments have, here and abroad, come more from custom than explicit rules. The Oireachtas is essentially a self-governing club, as it should be as an independent branch of the state. Rules on procedure and the workings of the organisation are laid down by its own members for the efficient running of business. We may disagree with those rules, but the trouble with customs is that they can be disregarded and pushed to a breaking point by unruly members who would rather wreck the place than reform from the inside.

Sinn Fein have learned that they can pretty much bring proceedings in parliament to a complete standstill any time they like. In fact, any member can do so by dent of being disruptive and ignoring the chair of the house. Sean Barrett may not be a popular Ceann Comhairle, at least among the opposition, but he is the chair until otherwise mandated by a democratic vote of the Dáil. Sinn Fein and other opposition members have been actively working to undermine his position, which is fine insofar as one can always call a vote of confidence.

The strategy that has been employed has been to circumvent that democratic process completely.

Dáil privilege used indiscriminately as a weapon? 

On one occasion Mary Lou McDonald decided to hold a sit-in and force the Dáil to abandon its business entirely, quite suspiciously around the time that her party was under major pressure for its links to IRA child abuse scandals.

Apart from the cynicism of the timing, it is a worrying trend to consider that members of the opposition will work to grind the whole business of the democratically elected Dáil to a halt. On several occasions other opposition members have been frustrated when their opportunity to question the government had to be cancelled because of this grandstanding.

On another occasion Mary Lou decided to use privilege to name people whom it had been alleged held dodgy bank accounts. We’ve seen cases of names being named in the Dáil recently, for example around the penalty points controversy. Dáil privilege is a good thing that allows parliamentarians to blow the lid on otherwise well covered potential scandals.

Sinn Fein seem to view privilege as just another weapon to be used indiscriminately. The names Mary Lou read out were sitting before the Public Accounts Committee, of which she is a member; and she essentially trumped them to considering the matter in a fair and balanced fashion.

This flagrant abuse of the system brings into question the validity of parliamentary privilege and rides roughshod over the workings of a committee that has been anything but a whitewashing studio for the government.

Elsewhere we have seen elected lawmakers specifically going out of their way to break the law.

Socialist Party TDs Ruth Coppinger and Paul Murphy have been actively involved in activities to circumvent the law of the land. Indeed, the latter has made claims that he was specifically elected to break the law.

I believe in robust debate and I believe in the right of all people to protest injustices and work for change, even through messy street protests and the likes. There are strong issues at play in our national life today, with abortion liberalisation and water charges at the top of the list. I do not believe that the appropriate way to bring about change is to bring in illegal abortion pills and take them without medical supervision; or take part in violent and thuggish activities.

When lawmakers move to break the law, it undermines the democratic system more than it advances their cause. For all that it is the worst form of government, as Churchill said, even a deeply unpopular government that got its mandate four years ago beats the alternatives we could have.

There’s an election coming up when folks can have their say, and for people like the Murphys and McDonalds of this world to decide that they know better is an insult to the democratic mandate.

Politicians need to play by the rules of the club

My worry for politics in 2015 is that we will see more of this behaviour on a regular basis. A breakdown in the customs and systems by which politics works will only lead us to a more embittered and dysfunctional system. It is not nice to consider that the Dáil chamber could become either a place where no business can get done, or where TDs are manhandled out by security during their twice daily sit-in protests.

Politicians from all sides have long needed to improve their behaviour in the Oireachtas, but at least there is still space for the magnificent contributions that move us from time to time. We need to work to improve the calibre of the debate in the chambers. Members taking it into their own hands to shut down debate or break the laws they are supposed to make and uphold will not improve our imperfect democratic system. Politicians need to play by the rules of the club, not so that they can be cattle to be herded; but so that there can function an environment for substantive debate.

A year of worsening behaviour from politicians won’t help us solve our problems. The Oireachtas needs to get back to normal business and parties set out credible policies for the next election, not simply prove time and again that their only play book is the anarchists cook book.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna. To read more columns by Aaron click here.

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