From Irish Political Review—November 2005

Ahern’s Modest Proposal

I hope the articles in last month's Irish Political Review concerning Dáil rights for Northern representatives made at least three things clear to IPR readers. First, that the commitment on speaking rights given by Bertie Ahern was not a matter of secret deals in smoke-filled rooms but was given in Dáil Éireann itself, in a debate on 13th May, 2003. Second, that the commitment was specifically in respect of the recommendation of the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution. And third, that the All-Party Committee recommended:

"…a limited right of audience within the Dáil. This would not require a constitutional amendment, and might technically be effected through the Dáil periodically forming itself into a Committee of the Whole House for the purposes of selected debates, most obviously for instance on Northern Ireland matters and on the operation of the Good Friday Agreement. The frequency and organisation of such debates could easily be altered as no constitutional amendment is required over time, in the light of experience."

Very little of that information has filtered through to the National Press of Ireland. But then highly-paid journalists, historians and political commentators have a duty to maintain active social lives and safeguard who-knows-what high levels of employment in the entertainment industry. They can't be expected to do that and read accounts of Dáil proceedings or relinquish the price of almost half a pint for the small circulation magazine that does read such accounts and does actually bother to report them.

Anyway, when Bertie Ahern wrote on Wednesday 26th October, to the leaders of all the parties, North and South, that had an interest in the matter, proposing no more than that the recommendation of the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution should at last be implemented, the degree of journalistic and editorial ignorance of basic facts was…well, frankly, it was just about what all well informed people would expect.

The journalists all noted that of all the parties written to, only Sinn Féin and the SDLP were in favour of the proposal. The Official Unionists and Democratic Unionist Party were not in favour of the proposal. Fine Gael, Labour and the wee PDs were also not in favour of the proposal. No paper to my knowledge pointed out that Fine Gael had 2 TDs and 1 Senator on the All-Party Committee, or that Labour also had 2 TDs and 1 Senator on the Committee, or that even the wee PDs had 1 Sentator on the committee (Fianna Fáil had 4 TDs and 1 Senator on the Committee and Sinn Féin wasn't represented at all on the Committee, which is perhaps the most interesting fact about it).

No paper to my knowledge mentioned the debate which was held in Dáil Éireann on 27th May 2003, which is of some considerable interest in the context of Fine Gael, Labour and the wee PDs failing to come out in favour of a modest proposal which only sought to implement the recommendation of a high powered committee on which they were all represented (and even more important on which Sinn Féin wasn't represented).

That debate was on a Sinn Féin motion which I simply don't understand, which was introduced by Aengus Ó Snodaigh and reads:

Go ndéanann Dáil Éireann:
– ag athdhearbhú di a tacaíochta le Comhaontú Aoine an Chéasta ar aontaigh muintir na hÉireann leis i reifrinn;
– ag aithint di an dul chun cinn polaitiúil mar thoradh ar phróiseas na síochána agus ar an gComhaontú, atá le leas mhuintir uile na hÉireann;
– ag cur a buíochais in iúl as an obair atá déanta agus glactha chucu ag na hinstitiúidí uile-Éireann;
– ag aithint di go bhfuil comhdhualgais agus dualgais chomhionanna ar Rialtas na hÉireann agus ar Rialtas na Breataine i leith cur i bhfeidhm iomlán an Chomhaontaithe a chinntiú, mar atá sainordaithe ag an bpobal;
– ag cuimhneamh di ar an dul chun cinn atá déanta i gcainteanna a raibh athbhunú na n-institiúidí mar aidhm leo;
– cáineadh ar chinneadh rialtas na Breataine chun toghcháin an Tionóil, a bhí le bheith ann ar 29 Bealtaine 2003, a chur ar ceal;
– a éileamh ar rialtas na Breataine:
– na hinstitiúidí polaitiúla a bunaíodh faoin gComhaontú a athbhunú;
– dáta roimh dheireadh mhí Mheithimh 2003 a shocrú do thoghcháin an Tionóil;
– a áitiú ar Rialtas na hÉireann:
– ionadaíocht sa Dáil a shocrú do shaoránaigh sna Sé Chontae; agus
– polasaithe agus straitéisí uile-Éireannach a chur chun cinn ar fud an réimse dualgas Rialtais, ó aithnítear na buntáistí do mhuintir uile na hÉireann a bhaineann le seoladh cúrsaí poiblí ar bhonn uile-oileáin. Tá mé ag roinnt ama leis an Teachta Arthur Morgan, a gheobhaidh cúig nóiméad, an Teachta Ferris, a gheobhaidh cúig nóiméad, an Teachta Healy, a gheobhaidh seacht nóiméad go leith, an Teachta Finian McGrath, a gheobhaidh seacht nóiméad go leith, agus is é an duine deireannach ná an Teachta Boyle, a gheobhaidh cúig nóiméad. Tá súil agam go bhfuil sé sin ceart go leor.

By the look of it only part of that is the motion (in recent years this magazine has been almost taken over by Gaelgoeri, so I'll keep my opinion of the incredible stupidity of conducting current politics in a dead language to myself). Anyway a later speaker, a TD called Healy was kind enough to point to:

"…the section that urges the Irish Government to provide for representation in the Dáil for citizens of the Six Counties. That is something they should have. They are Irish citizens and, if they elect people to represent them in the Six Counties, they should have an opportunity to represent the views of their constituents in this House and in Seanad Éireann. I support this part of the motion."

Thanks to Mr. Healy I know what the final part of Brian Cowen's amendment of that motion (the amendment is in English, the motion is in Gaelic, which is simply ludicrous) is getting at. Here is the tail end of a long amendment which—

"…notes the recommendations of the Oireachtas All-Party Committee on the Constitution with regard to Northern representation in the Oireachtas, and agrees that these recommendations should be taken forward through consultation with all political parties represented in the Dáil and Seanad."

An amendment tabled by Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny did not mention the issue of Dáil rights. Another amendment, moved by Liz McManus on behalf of the Labour Party when the debate resumed on 28th May, also failed to mention the issue of Dáil rights. But Ms McManus, who had been a member of the All-Party Committee which recommended that Northern representatives should attend and speak at the Dáil on special occasions when it formed itself into a "Committee of the whole House", raised the matter in her speech:

"Turning to the motion tabled by Sinn Féin, I recognise that the issue of northern parties achieving representation in the Oireachtas periodically arises in the House. Efforts have been under way to review the situation since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement five years ago, recognising the new context it created for political structures throughout Ireland. It is the Labour Party's view that the relationship and interaction between elected representatives in the North and in the Oireachtas should only be considered alongside full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. In the present context, such consideration serves only to distract us from the main issue of re-establishing the institutions created under the Agreement and using them as templates for future political structures North and South. This does not mean that accommodating elected representatives in the North in some fashion is out of the question. The terms in which Sinn Féin has chosen to present the issue in this debate do not recognise the efforts made through the All-Party Committee on the Constitution, of which I was a member. We held hearings and heard from a number of political parties, including Sinn Féin and the SDLP, which presented cases to the committee. This was a recognition that a new kind of relationship should be explored and considered by the committee. Recommendations were published and presented to the previous Government after consideration of the issues was completed.
"I can recall the discussions in the committee very clearly. There was cross-party agreement that the fact that cross-community representation was a significant factor should be recognised. We could not disregard the fact that the mandate that exists in Northern Ireland does not belong to any one community, but is instead a cross-community mandate. We had to take that factor into account in our deliberations about any proposals we were bringing forward. The Seanad is revisiting the issue of Oireachtas representation for northern politicians. I welcome the Seanad's explicit efforts, as part of its internal review, to explore ways of accommodating representation for people in the North. I anticipate that a way of resolving the matter will be found that is to the satisfaction of parties in the Oireachtas and in Northern Ireland."

Please, let it be noted for the record that in the Dáil on 28th May 2003 Ms McManus, moving an amendment on behalf of the Labour Party, endorsed the recommendation of the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution of which she had been a member. If only Stickies could stick to such things! (But the only guns they've ever stuck to are the ones they used to kill all round them in their gory glory days.)

In the event, the Fine Gael and Labour amendments were not voted on. The motion as amended by the Government was put to the vote and carried overwhelmingly, with only the Sinn Féin deputies and a few others voting against. Just before the vote Sinn Féin's Dáil leader, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, had this to say:

"We regret that our MPs, or Deputies, from constituencies north of the Border, are unable at this point to join us in this important debate on the floor of the Chamber. It is something we have pursued actively and we welcome the stated intent of the Taoiseach to have this matter expedited and addressed in the autumn session.
"While regretting that our colleague MPs are unable to join us this evening, I want to make it abundantly clear that we also regret the fact that all 18 MPs for the northern constituencies are unable to be with us here today. I want to put on record that we look forward to the day when all 18 MPs will have the opportunity to represent their particular analysis and outlook in a debate on this issue or on related matters. I hope and expect that day is approaching, which is something I hope to be here to welcome.
"It is important to acknowledge at this juncture the Government's agreement in its amendment to our motion that the issue of northern representation in the Oireachtas should be taken forward by agreement in both the Dáil and Seanad and that that should happen before the end of this session."

Fine Gael and Labour and the wee PDs, who had been represented on the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution, voted for a Government amendment which endorsed the recommendation of that Committee. Not one of those who voted for the Government made the little effort it would have taken to disown the reference to the Committee. Liz McManus of the Labour Party went out of her way to commend the Committee, its efforts and its recommendation.

But none of the papers, their journalists, historians and political commentators, mentioned any of that. So none of them were in a position to mention (as if they would have anyway) the incredible hypocrisy of Fine Gael, the Labour Party and the wee PDs in all of a sudden all of them rejecting a proposal in whose development they have all been so closely involved. Hypocrites one and all!

So what did they find to write about, those heroes of the third estate, so full of . . . well, just so full?

The Irish News (28 October, 2005) noted that all sorts had rejected a proposal which involved a committee and reported that Dermot Nesbitt was outraged. It didn't go into any kind of detail.

An editorial in The Irish Times (29 October, 2005) returned to the old canard that "A commitment to provide access to the Oireachtas for Sinn Féin MPs was extracted from the Taoiseach during arms decommissioning negotiations last year…" Incredibly, it claimed that the All-Party Committee on the Constitution

"…found the Dáil should consider granting a right of audience to MPs on specific Northern issues, on a cross-community basis. But it worried about the impact this might have on unionist support for the Belfast Agreement and it favoured, instead, the development of a North-South parliamentary forum or the system under which Northern representatives are appointed to the Seanad by the Taoiseach".

Last month we quoted the whole of the Committee's recommendation. Perhaps we should do so again this month. I'll leave that to the editor. Suffice it to say it is comprehensively misrepresented here.

Brendan O'Connor on the front page of the Sunday Independent (30 October 2005) took the issue into a grotesque fairyland of imagined outrage, with not a word of truth, or a hint of integrity about it:

"The story so far went like this: Pat Doherty of Sinn Féin/IRA announced in August that Northern MPs would be allowed to address the Dail. And naturally everyone was livid.
"In fairness, people felt, we didn't really want the representatives of a neighbouring state participating in our Government, a government of which they don't even accept the legitimacy. So Gerry Adams backs it up.
"Says that Bertie told him in a secret meeting that Sinn Féin MPs could speak in the Dáil, on any issue. And we start wondering then what the hell else Bertie and Gerry cooked up alone.
"The two of them there in secret, with Bertie, the great deal-maker, promising anything at all that would keep Gerry happy.
"Then Bertie says that no actually, he never said that MPs could speak in the Dáil. Because it’s clear that people aren't into the idea."

And so on, and so on. Ad nauseam. And so on. The Dáil record speaks for itself and we have repeated the relevant sections of the record time and again. But never mind all that. Brendan O'Connor knows what he knows and no boring recital of dull facts is going to constitutionalise him out of his delerium. Well, its his delerium and he's welcome to it. The real world has its own rhythms in which its motions continue regardless. So, rock on.

Brian Feeney (in the Irish News on 2 November) is the only commentator I've seen who knew the simple basics of that whereof he spoke. He was mistaken in his conclusions but he came to those conclusions by way of the facts of the matter.

"Why did Bertie propose it in the first place?
"Yes, you can say he's responding to a long-standing demand from Sinn Féin and also to proposals for reforming Dáil representation that have been in the offing for years. True, but Bertie knows better than to rush in with a proposal he must have known would be rejected.
"So why did he do it?
"Politics folks, politics.
"Now no one can say Fianna Fáil did nothing to make the Dáil a truly national chamber. He can always turn to SF and tell them he did try to make speaking rights for northerners a reality but that wasn't his main reason.
"In the run up to the next election in the Republic, probably in 2007, the taoiseach can wrap the green flag round him and point to those parties which frustrated plans to include northerners in any shape or form in the Dáil.
"Fine Gael and Labour walked straight into it exposing themselves as partitionist to their core…
"…Quite obviously he didn't want last week's proposal to work any more than the parties which summarily rejected it. But Bertie walks away with the credit. A classic stroke."

Brian Feeney missed the point of his own point. The next Southern election is going to turn on Partition. But not in the old nationalist sense of a torrent of empty anti-partitionist rhetoric that just gets old republicans drunk and young republicans killed. The next election will turn on Partition as the crux of a new national politics that will cross the border with a smile in its eyes and a song in its heart, asking what all the fuss is about. It’s the post-nationalism revisionists have nightmares about.

Ahern's modest proposal, and it is a modest proposal with no constitutional ramifications, is the bottom line of that national politics. He can no more go back on it and win the next election than he can win the next Eurovision Song Contest with himself and Michael McDowell singing A Bicycle Built For Two.

And finally, Bertie has rejected the idea of Fianna Fáil organising along the lines of that new national politics by fighting elections across the border, on the extraordinary grounds that he doesn't want to split the northern nationalist vote which is united between Sinn Féin, the SDLP and some odds and sods on councils here and there. That leaves Fianna Fáil only one way back into government ever, COALITION WITH SINN FÉIN. The modest proposal is at least a starting point for those negotiations.

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