When a respected journalist like Michael Clifford pays an unscheduled visit to Leinster House – as he did for last week's Sunday Tribune – and writes an impressionistic piece about the functioning of the Dáil that is so unflattering, it is time that persons elected to Dáil Éireann sit up and take notice. If there were ever a period in our history since independence when the relevance of the Dáil ought to be central, it is now. Labour will publish a programme of institutional reform that goes far beyond reform of Dáil procedures. However, reform of how the Dáil itself does its business is overdue. In particular, parliament needs to claw back some of the powers ceded to government over recent years.
Having said that, it has become fashionable to denigrate the functioning of Dáil Éireann. In recent years, the standing of politics and the stature of politicians has never been lower. In the present climate of economic meltdown, that may be understandable – in particular because the public is all too aware of the scale of mismanagement of our affairs that preceded the crash. If some of the criticism is richly merited, some of it is bordering on the ludicrous. And somebody needs to ask whether the unending regurgitation – and I'm not referring to the piece by Michael Clifford – of often badly informed, ill-thought out commentary is achieving anything beyond the further demoralisation of the people who are trying to raise a family and make a living in this country.
I was intrigued by my own response to Michael Clifford's piece. What he described bore no relationship to my Dáil week – nor I suspect to the Dáil week of many other deputies. Our primary role is as legislators. During the week chosen, the Justice Select Committee (of which I am a member) finished committee stage of the Multi-Units Development Bill. This is a bill to regulate the conduct of management companies responsible for the management and supervision of new-style apartment blocks. Separately, I set out my party's response at second stage to the Immigration Residence and Protection Bill, which is a voluminous piece of legislation governing asylum and inward migration into Ireland.
As a member, I attended the examination by the Public Accounts Committee of the HSE and the Department of Health into monies made available for the training and upskilling of non-professional health staffs to an account nominally in the control of Siptu. I took question time as justice spokesperson along with the justice spokesperson for Fine Gael. Following question time on Thursday evening, I travelled to Newcastle, Co Down, for the first north-south conference of parliamentarians of all political parties on the island. Following a conference on Friday evening and, as a member of the working group for progressing the commitment in the Good Friday agreement to a north-south forum, we met with our opposite members from the Northern Ireland Assembly.
In addition, I discharged a number of routine duties. As an Oireachtas member for Dublin South-West, along with colleagues, I met with the county manager and his senior staff to be briefed on a number of developments as prescribed in the legislation that ended the dual mandate. I met with Fás management arising from a Monday morning meeting with community employment project sponsors and supervisors. I chaired the weekly internal management meeting of the Labour Party. I gave a student an interview to assist with her thesis on public expenditure decision-making. I attended a public meeting with senior gardaí and council officials about policing, crime and anti-social behaviour in Fettercairn in my constituency. I was unable to attend a meeting of the Oireachtas Commission, or our weekly parliamentary party meeting or my own constituency council meeting because of Dáil and Northern Ireland commitments.
This is a far cry from the work-shy funeral goers depicted so frequently in sections of the media. Which of the duties ought I not have attended to in the week Michael Clifford visited? Law-making does not lend itself to a nine-to-five working week. It takes reflection, discussion and painstaking research and preparation that nowhere in the world is done in a typical five-day working week in the chamber. Of course, there is the much highlighted occasional tomfoolery in some of the set pieces. Of course, there are some colleagues elected to Dáil Eireann who will never become legislators. But that's democracy.
Mistakes made by government ought not make commonplace the routine denigration of our political institutions. If ridiculing the political system has become the staple diet of so many commentators, what is the alternative being suggested? It is true that the ardour for reform among opposition abates somewhat when the opposition becomes government. However, disillusionment with the performance of the Dáil means that restoring confidence in our political institutions is a challenge that the next government will not be able to avoid.