n 1999 Jim Mitchell was chairman of the Public Accounts Committee when it conducted an important and uncommonly efficient inquiry into the wholesale avoidance of Deposit Interest Retention Tax (Dirt) by Irish banks.
For years, half the country were stashing their savings in deposit accounts that were supposedly “non-resident” and therefore exempt from tax on the interest. Senior banking and revenue executives were summoned by the committee to explain why they allowed this fiction to continue, at an eventual cost of €100m to the state.
The hearings were broadcast on TG4 and on the internet. It was a cheap, fast inquiry and was followed by a speedy, hard-hitting report. Nobody ever dreamt that Irish parliamentarians could be this efficient.
One day, in the middle of a side meeting, Mitchell received a phone call. He turned his back on his colleagues as he spoke briefly with his doctor. It was bad news. His cancer was back and, because a number of his siblings had died from the same disease, they both knew his chances of beating it were non-existent. He’d received a death sentence. Mitchell didn’t flinch, hung up, and returned immediately to his work. His colleagues had no idea what had just happened. It was brave, selfless and an act of heroism: public service over private troubles.
I couldn’t help thinking of him after I’d flung the Sunday Independent across the room last Sunday morning. Eoghan Harris, appointed to the Seanad by Bertie Ahern, informed us that senator Jim Walsh, the government whip, had called him in west Cork to wish him well and assure him his vote wasn’t needed to get the banks’ bailout bill passed in the upper house. Harris declared himself “glad to be able to avoid the cabin fever around Leinster House”. He decided to go for a walk instead.
Senator, I am sorry you are ill and I wish you well, too. But you are writing newspaper columns about long walks, hearty meals and the pleasures of staying up all night to watch the American presidential election debates. You are not supposed to be “glad” you don’t have to show up when the most important piece of legislation in decades is being debated. Your opinions on the American elections may be fascinating, but as a highly paid legislator, your opinions on the bailout should be on the record of the Seanad and not in a newspaper.
If your absence is truly unavoidable due to illness, an expression of regret rather than relief would be appropriate.
One week earlier Anne Harris complained in the same newspaper that Fine Gael’s decision to deny voting pairs to government TDs, as a protest against the taoiseach’s refusal to hold a full debate on the economy, was “hysterical” and “playing politics”. Why is it war on presenteeism from the Sunday Independent? What do they want — TDs and senators to text in their votes as if they were watching a reality TV show?
We pay our public representatives pretty well. Have our expectations sunk so low that even showing up is asking too much?
Fortunately, the taoiseach is taking the matter more seriously and gave Kerry North TD Tom McEllistrim and Donegal North East’s Jim McDaid a dressing-down in front of their colleagues over their absence from the same debate. Rightly so. McEllistrim had been canvassing in his constituency. I’ve no idea what McDaid’s excuse was.
I’m still shaking my head at the antics of Fine Gael’s James Bannon. He failed to show for the Dail’s opening week because he forgot the holidays were over. He forgot? So what is the penalty? A fine? Standing in the corner of the Dail with a dunce’s cap on?
Usually, politics is an irrelevant side-show where politicians, no matter how sincere or hardworking, make little difference. But in the past fortnight, politics was back in the spotlight and democracies around the world needed politicians to step up, rather than back, from the crisis we face. We don’t need politicians when everything is going well. When everything goes wrong, as it has now, turning up is a minimum requirement.
I think Fine Gael’s refusal to provide pairs unless absolutely necessary was the right move. For one glorious week we had an opposition. I’m only sorry they implemented the harsh regime for such a brief time. I’d prefer if Ahern stopped swanning around New York and got into the Dail to give us the benefit of his 10 years’ experience as taoiseach. Frustratingly, though, Fine Gael insists on being gentlemanly and points out that it’s traditional for former taoisigh to get a free pass from the Dail.
Oh, come on. Ahern showed up to pay tribute to Seamus Brennan last week, but was not around for the vote on the bailout. These are not priorities that comfort frightened citizens. Brennan was a good man and deserves tributes, but we deserve the contribution of a former taoiseach to a debate on the bailout. He’s the one who told us last year that people who made gloomy forecasts on the economy should commit suicide. I am extremely interested in his reflections on the current crisis.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the likes of McEllistrim are right. Consider again Jim Mitchell. What was his reward for putting dying aside while he worked late nights and weekends on the committee? He lost his seat in the next general election, in June 2002, and was dead by December. Who’d have blamed him if he’d decided not to run? Due to constituency boundary changes, he knew his chances of being elected were poor but Fine Gael was desperate for candidates and he agreed to run.
Maybe McEllistrim knows too well that many voters couldn’t care less what happens in Leinster House. Perhaps he was smart to stay in Kerry minding his seat rather than making a pointless contribution to a debate in the Dail. But what is he minding his seat for? Hand shaking door-to-door was supposed to be the means, but apparently has become the end too.
So maybe the results of Dail and Seanad votes are foregone conclusions. Maybe the standard of Oireachtas debate isn’t exactly soaring. And yes, I know it’s frustrating to move amendments that will inevitably be voted down by the government. But so what? That’s the system. The alternative is to count up the votes on each side after an election and send every TD, bar the cabinet, home to write letters about potholes.
Otherwise, Dail votes are mere symbolism and parliamentary debates are a game of charades. What about bearing witness, asking questions and demanding accountability? Say it ain’t so, Eoghan; say it ain’t so.