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Why was there such a big fuss over 'Votegate' and what happens next?

There have been calls for a review of the voting system, but some TDs have said deputies simply need to follow the rules.

Niall Collins and Timmy Dooley have both apologised for the controversy.
Niall Collins and Timmy Dooley have both apologised for the controversy.
Image: Laura Hutton/PA

“IT WAS ALMOST allowed to develop into an Irish Watergate…”

This is how independent TD Maureen O’Sullivan summed up what has now become known as Votergate, a controversy that dominated the political agenda this week, with politicians lining up to have their say and take a swing at the Fianna Fáil TDs who started it all.

It emerged last weekend that the party’s justice spokesperson Niall Collins had pressed the voting button of his colleague Timmy Dooley in the Dáil six times in one session.

Collins cast votes for these motions for both himself and Dooley. He claimed he thought his colleague was at the back of the chamber on a phonecall. 

We now know that Dooley was not in the Dáil chamber at the time – in fact at one stage he left the grounds of Leinster House altogether. 

After the news broke in Saturday’s Irish Independent, the Ceann Comhairle ordered a report from the Committee on Procedure into the incident involving the two Fianna Fáil TDs. Party leader Micheál Martin decided to suspend the two deputies from the front bench pending the outcome of the Dáil investigation and the party’s own inquiry into the incident. 

Then on Monday morning Fianna Fáil’s Lisa Chambers made an admission – she also (inadvertently) voted for one of her absent colleagues during the same session, before pushing her own button.

She accidentally sat in Dara Calleary’s seat, she explained, but she accepted that she should have told the teller so that the record could be corrected.

“It was an honest and genuine mistake,” she said in an interview on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland.

‘Suspect behaviour’

Later that morning, Justice Minister (and Fine Gael TD) Charlie Flanagan was happy to take a number of questions from reporters on the issue when he attended the launch of a Halloween safety campaign.

He threw out phrases like “illegal”, “serious misdemeanour” and “suspect behaviour” to describe the alleged conduct of the opposition party TDs.

Flanagan had that morning divulged that he himself had pressed voting buttons for colleagues too in the past.

That was different he insisted – those people were in the room at the time and the Dáil standing orders state the person must be in the chamber when the doors are sealed in order to be entitled to vote.

Several TDs confessed to the lesser crime of pushing a colleague’s voting button for them while they were in the room. It is common practice, they all explained – and there’s nothing in the rules to state they can’t do it. 

Then it was Barry Cowen’s turn under the spotlight. He was already embroiled in the Dooley/Collins controversy, as he and Collins were sitting in each other’s seats for the session in which Dooley’s phantom votes were cast.

“I’m voting on his, he’s voting on mine but it saves us reaching across each other,” he told the Votegate review, which had been ordered by the Ceann Comhairle. 

Separately someone dug out Dáil footage from 26 September which showed Cowen entering the chamber after a vote had been cast at his seat. He has insisted he never asked a colleague to vote for him when he was not in the Dáil chamber. 

Fine Gael ministers  Eoghan Murphy and Michael Ring also had to defend themselves when questions were raised about their votes on motions in January and October. Both men have said they were present for those votes. 

‘They can’t be trusted’

Press releases had flooded into newsdesk inboxes, including one from Fine Gael TD Martin Heydon on Sunday with the headline ’14 questions FF have yet to answer on Dooley/Collins voting scandal’. 

TheJournal.ie asked all of the political parties on Monday whether any of their TDs had ever voted for an absent colleague.

A speedy response came back on behalf of Solidarity TDs Ruth Coppinger and Mick Barry – neither have ever voted for a colleague in their absence. The Social Democrats said the same, as did Labour and People Before Profit.

“I spoke to all [two of] our TDs this morning and they assure me they have not,” a Green Party spokesperson replied. 

Fine Gael’s Chief Whip Sean Kyne said he was not aware of any of the party’s TD having voted for a colleague in their absence. When asked whether he had checked with them all, he responded “No. I have not.”. 

A Sinn Féin spokesperson confirmed they had checked in with all of their TDs. 

“This is not normal practice and goes to show why Fianna Fail cannot be trusted,” they added.

The next day the Irish Independent reported that Sinn Féin’s former leader Gerry Adams mistakenly voted for his former colleague Peadar Tóibín on legislation to hold an abortion referendum in March 2018. 

Tóibín left the party over his opposition to abortion. He also was not in Leinster House on the day. 

Sinn Féin said Adams had been allocated  a new seat a number of weeks earlier and inadvertently voted in Tóibín’s seat. They said Dáil officials were alerted to the error on the same day. 

At Leaders’ Questions on Tuesday Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said “we must apply to people in this House the same standards as we would apply to ordinary citizens going out to vote on voting day, on election day or on referendum day”. 

“If an ordinary citizen voted twice, for example, and voted for somebody else as well as themselves, that would be a crime,” he told TDs. 

“In order to allay any concerns or confusion, I think we should all now be in our seats for all votes from now on.”

‘I was looking at his face’

On Thursday, the  Dáil Committee on Procedure published its report called for an entire review of the voting system, calling for  greater “transparency and clarity” on electronic voting,

It said that it would not be “legally appropriate” for the committee to demand sanctions against TDs. 

Dooley told the committee that he did not ask Collins to press his button and only found out it had happened when he received a call from a journalist about it. Collins said be believed his colleague was at the back of the chamber on the phone, but acknowledged “alarm bells” should have rung when Dooley did not return to his seat 20 minutes later. 

When asked why Dooley could be seen in footage pointing to the voting machine, Collins told the committee that he had “no idea”. 

“I was looking at his face and not his hands,” he said. 

Speaking in the Dáil, Dooley apologised for giving his colleague the impression that he would be in the chamber during the vote. 

“I accept and regret that my conduct has led to a controversy that is unwelcome to this House and all its members,” he said. Collins also apologised for his role in what happened, as did Barry Cowen and Lisa Chambers. 

TDs from other parties in the chamber got another chance to lambaste them.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said their actions “caused damage to the Dáil” and reflected “the worse politics of low standards in high places”.

She said the Fianna Fáil deputies have shown themselves to be “cavalier, arrogant and entitled”. 

Rise TD Paul Murphy told the Dail that the revelations were “utterly scandalous”. 

“It demonstrates deeply the existence of double standards regarding how ordinary people would be treated if they attempted to get someone else to vote for them and how Deputies feel they can act.”

Bríd Smith said there is a public perception that there is “no comeback for any of the wrongdoing” in Leinster House. The report from the Committee on Procedure did not recommend sanctions or disciplinary action against the deputies involved in the controversy.

“Yesterday, during questions to the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, we found out that over 50,000 jobseekers have been sanctioned financially through JobPath,” the People Before Profit TD said.

She said people are “shocked to wake up and find out that there will be no sanctions for this behaviour”.

We need accountability and sanctions on those Deputies who voted for others who were not in the Chamber. Otherwise we are holding this democracy in contempt and feeding the cynicism of so many people about our democracy and what happens in this House.

But some TDs called for a reality check.

Galway TD Catherine Connolly said that she had more time to talk about Votegate in the Dail than she had to talk about the 38 people on hospital trolleys in her county.

“I would have thought that the leader of the Fianna Fáil party, Deputy Micheál Martin, would have come into the House, apologised and sat down,” she said.

Wrong was done, votes were taken in the absence of someone out of the Chamber and that is against the Constitution and article 15.11.1°. It should not have happened, end of story.

Independent TD Maureen O’Sullivan pointed out that there are “examples of parliaments around the world that are corrupt, where physical violence has broken out, where there is blatant self interest among the members and where there are connections with criminality.”

“There is one parliament in Latin America where a significant number of members are up on charges in another jurisdiction for drugs trafficking.”

She said this controversy was “almost allowed to develop into an Irish Watergate, such was the potential for sensationalism and opportunism before all of the facts were known”.

One recommendation called for a wider review of the voting system. I do not see the need to change a system which was and is respected by the majority of the Members. There would be an extra expense involved in a card system, which could also be open to abuse, or a fingerprint system. That would be a terrible waste of finance, unless, perhaps, the deputies involved in this issue would be picking up the bill.

She reminded TDs that they “are all adults” and they simply have to abide by the rules.

“The system is fine. We do not think there is a problem but members involved in this situation should be dealt with. It is a reminder to us all that, as people have said, it is an honour and a privilege to be elected to this House. We just have to live up to that.”

Timmy Dooley and Niall Collins are still suspended from the Fianna Fáil front bench, but it is unclear what further action, if any, will be taken by the party’s leader. 

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