“School’s out for Summer Schools”: The Week In Irish Politics

So that’s it. The political term over and done with. Politicians off on their holidays and the lights all off in Leinster House. They’re all in Marbella, Magaluf or Corfu. At least that’s the impression you get any time you read the papers upon the rising of the houses of the Oireachtas for any recess. In reality, the political world keeps turning and politicians are still at work, be it in the constituency, developing policy, meetings with various groups, or work relating to Oireachtas committees. The most powerful of these committees is the Public Accounts Committee and they certainly didn’t go on holidays last Friday.

Yesterday, they published their report into issues at the Garda training college in Templemore and in doing so, they could not have been more scathing. The scale of the lack of corporate governance and the Commissioners obstruction of the financial issue from the Comptroller and Auditor General’s office took many aback. As Chris O’Donoghue said on his Newstalk Drive program, as a member of a board of a charity, if a similar report came out about his charity, the entire board would be sacked immediately. Due process, however, must be followed but with yet another scandal being leveled at the feet of Nóirín O’Sullivan, surely we are now in a situation of when, not if, the Commission will be forced out. Fine Gael, the Independent Alliance and Fianna Fáil are all playing their cards close to their chest initially but all other parties have called on her to go. It’s apparent, to this author anyway, that the issues in the force cannot be solved from within but that someone from outside An Garda Síochána needs to be put at the helm after O’Sullivan’s tenure is ended in order to bring about the cultural and governance changes the force badly needs. Too many great rank and file Gardaí are having their good name tarnished by association at this point and the frustration of the Garda Representative Association on the same Newstalk program was clear over the airwaves despite not wanting to comment on the issue (their representative was on air to talk about body cameras being issued to Gardaí). This is an issue that will play right through the Summer and into Autumn as the parties will look to find a lasting solution to the crisis our police force finds itself in. Expect it to fester in the interim.

Away from an Garda Síochána, the “do nothing Dáil”, as it has been dubbed in certain corners, did do one thing badly needed for the country this week. James Browne, Fianna Fáil TD for Wexford, introduced two items which received wide ranging support in terms of mental health. The first was the establishment of the first ever Oireachtas committee specifically focused on the area of mental health. The second was the passing of the Mental Health (Amendment) (No 2) Bill through the Dáil. This legislation will give patients far more rights in accessing treatment and is long overdue in a country rocked by suicide over the past decade, particularly. Legislation like this on such vital issues gives some hope to an otherwise cynical electorate. The debate on the Bill saw a marvelous contribution by Browne’s party colleague Lisa Chambers from Mayo. This was the second time in her first year and a half as a TD that she has delivered a powerful speech on mental health in the Dáil chamber. For the third week in a row it would appear that ‘new politics’ is finally delivering some dividends for the people.

This was one of 12 pieces of legislation run through the Dáil on the last Friday that the house sat before the recess. One thing that baffles me is why more of these Friday sittings can’t be used to run through legislation that is, on the face of it, appealing to all sides of the house. For instance the Seanad Electoral (University Members) (Amendment) Bill 2014 was introduced and the heads of bill published 3 years ago. This being a bill to bring the result of the seventh amendment of Bunreacht na hÉireann into effect having been overwhelmingly endorsed by the people by referendum in 1979. The effect of it would be to open the voting for the six University Seats on the Seanad to all graduates of higher education in one six seater panel. This is something all major parties apparently agree with, yet after the initial publication, nothing further happened and the Bill died with the dissolution of the Oireachtas last year before the General Election. What is stopping supposedly popular Bills like this being run through as quickly? In the era of ‘new politics’, surely long needed political reform like this and the introduction of online voter registration could be fast tracked?

The time for making these changes may be limited though. As noted last week, Labour and the Social Democrats have been selecting candidates for a General Election. The latter this week setting new Fianna Fáil convert Stephen Donnelly against his former protege Cllr. Jennifer Whitmore with her selection as the SocDem candidate for Wicklow. Labour have now a total of six candidates selected with Cllr. Nial McNeilis rumoured to become their seventh shortly to contest the Galway West constituency. Tellingly Fianna Fáil have also, this week, begun selecting candidates with Cllr. Paul McAuliffe set to be confirmed to contest the seat he narrowly lost out to Fine Gael’s Noel Rock in Dublin North West at a convention to be held in the coming weeks. Nomination papers have been circulated to members but it’s not likely that this convention will be contested.

Fine Gael also look set to be gearing up for an election if their Summer statement is anything to go by. Minister Paschal Donohoe outlined his breakdown of tax and spending measures to be announced in detail in October’s budget. A focus on capital infrastructure caught the headlines as the Government look to consolidate growth and make capital of generous borrowing conditions. In doing so, giving the air of a Government keen on developing the economy and spreading the wealth, they hope that votes will follow. It’s a tried and tested strategy as seen with Fianna Fáil in the past. In an era of ‘new politics’ though, all the old bets are off. Even the seasoned hacks don’t know exactly what the future might have in store. Perhaps it’s as good a time for a recess as any to let the rest of us catch our breath. Make mine a frozen strawberry daiquiri and I might be ready for it all again when the Summer holidays are over! In the meantime, expect to see your TD, Senator or General Election candidate a lot more locally or at a talk at your nearest Summer School.

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