My Evening Herald column from Saturday March 31st arguing that breaks in Dáil sittings are necessary and beneficial
On Thursday Dáil Éireann takes a break for the Easter recess. It is set to return on April 18th. Cue a hue and cry from opposition TDs and assorted political hacks demanding that the Dáil return sooner or sit longer or whatever.
These protests are not only regular and predictable, they are just as entertaining as they are pointless.
These sham battles seem to be based on the notion that the more the Dáil sits the better. Really? It is hard to sustain that argument when you look at the household charge fiasco.
In its recent annual report the Government commends itself for increasing the number of sitting days, saying that the Dáil sat for about 127 days, roughly 36/37weeks, in its first year.
According to the government’s calculations this is a 44% increase on the number of sitting days in the first year of the previous Dáil (2007/08).
A major achievement you’d think. Though not quiet as impressive when compared with the years 2008/09 and 2009/10 when the Dáil actually sat for 35 weeks per annum.
But what’s a week or two between old sworn enemies?
It is the old public sector problem: measuring inputs, not outcomes. Successive governments have been guilty of it.
The Government’s legislative programme should be driven by the number of pieces of legislation it wishes to pass into law, not by a need to produce bits of legislation to fill up some allotted time slot.
TDs should not be apologising for the Dáil not sitting in plenary session over the next three weeks.
Yes, various Oireachtas committees will be sitting during that time – but something else should also be happening. Something that is, in my opinion, far more important.
Politicians and their policy advisers should be availing of this break to do something they rarely get to do: think and prepare.
There is a story, probably apochryphal, about a Minister walking along a corridor in his Department when he spies a senior policy maker sitting back with his feet up on the desk. “Have you no work to do?” asks the Minister, “I have…” comes the reply “…I am doing it now, I’m thinking”.
These short breaks in Dáil sittings afford Ministers and senior officials some time and space away from debates, motions and parliamentary questions to think and to focus on other matters in their departments – things that don’t often make the headlines at Leader’s questions.
Central to this is standing back and taking stock of where they are.
When the Dáil is sitting a surprising amount of time in a government Department can be taken up in answering TDs questions alone, particularly when its that Minister’s turn at oral PQs.
Parliamentary accountability and scrutiny is an essential part of the democratic process, but you also need time to go and effectively do all those things that the parliament will subsequently want to scrutinise.
But if the need for this “thinking” time is important for Ministers and officials is it absolutely vital for an opposition and its support teams.
The Minister has a full time team of 8 or more in his office to fetch, carry and prepare – plus those other senior officials along the corridor to advise and research – the opposition spokesman is often depending on two or three.
But it is not a matter of resources. While the Dáil is sitting the agenda is set by the government. The opposition is usually just reacting to it – or reacting to the media reaction to events.
This is not always a bad thing, especially for an opposition that is effective at harrying the administration. This was the case in the latter half of the last government. The only crumb of comfort it got from the polls was when the Dáil was in recess. When it was in session both oppositions parties’ ratings went up, especially Labour’s.
But an opposition also needs to set the agenda too. It takes a lot of preparation and planning for an opposition to get the focus on its agenda. These breaks can often provide that space.
Politicians on both sides should acknowledge this fact. Who knows, maybe the reporters who cover the Dáil and actually benefit from the break might even credit them for it.