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23rd Oct 2019

Dáil button-bashers behaving like children who can’t be trusted with the house keys

Carl Kinsella

Dail buttons

I am going to begin this article about the latest Dáil Eireann scandal by talking about a video game called Tekken.

It’s an arcade-style fighting game, like Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter. When I was young, we used a term for people who have no real clue how to play those video games, so instead simply mashed their fingers against the controllers without any thought, hoping for the best. That term is “button-bashers”.

Those words have found new poignancy in the past week, as it transpired that an unknown number of TDs have been pushing one another’s buttons when it comes to voting in Dáil Eireann.

The story started with Fianna Fáil TDs Niall Collins and Timmy Dooley. In antics that the Sugababes would be proud of, it appeared that Collins voted six times on behalf of Dooley while Dooley was not inside the chamber on 17 October. Both Collins and Dooley say that Collins did this without permission and believed Dooley to be in the chamber at the time, which he was not.

And so the floodgates opened on ‘votegate’. Lisa Chambers admitted that she had mistakenly voted for Fianna Fáil deputy leader Dara Calleary and hadn’t corrected the record. Then it became apparent that several Fine Gael frontbenchers – including Rural Development Minister Michael Ring, Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy and Minister for Mental Health Damien English – are all recorded as voting at times when they cannot be seen in their seats.

They all have said they were in the chamber at the time of the votes, though there is no video to confirm this as of yet. Sadly, the Oireachtas TV cameras don’t provide a view of the majority of the chamber, making it much harder to verify who has been pulling knick-knacks on their neighbours’ buttons.

Shane Beatty and Sean Defoe of Newstalk found that 44% of TDs have voted on behalf of a colleague and 42% of TDs have asked a colleague to vote on their behalf. This is fine and dandy if the TD appointing a proxy is in the chamber, but as we now know, the whereabouts of TDs isn’t easy to confirm.

As with any issues in the political sphere, the debate has precipitated a meta-debate. The debate beyond the debate. The debate about whether or not we should be having this debate at all. In an Ireland where more than 10,000 people are homeless, thousands more are held in direct provision and fears of economic downturn are rife, should we really care about who pushes what button?

Well, yes. This is how our laws get made. This is the process by which we are governed. Of course it matters. Of course we should care. But…

And this is an important ‘but’: We shouldn’t be listening to Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil spin on this matter. We should be listening to our own common sense. Is it sensible that our TDs can gallivant about the chamber, or leave the chamber entirely, without a record of where they are? Is it sensible that a culture has developed wherein TDs think nothing of voting for or against legislation on behalf of someone else? Is it sensible that there is not a publicly accessible video record of everyone who is or isn’t even in the chamber at the time of a vote? Is it even sensible to allow for TDs to push one another’s buttons without a record at all?

Especially when this could be so easily policed. In the European Parliament, MEPs have an identity card they swipe before they can vote.

According to the Irish Times, this idea was dismissed on the basis that TDs “might lose their ID cards”. Let’s stop and think about that. These are the people we elect to hold the keys to the country. To the economy, to the healthcare system, to our public schools. And they contend that they cannot be trusted with an ID card.

Seems ironic enough, as they were more than happy to force an unwanted and illegal ID card upon the rest of us. But I digress. Not sure I’ve laboured enough the point that the Dáil Eireann voting system is being held back by the same fear that stops a parent giving a 12-year-old the house keys for the first time. Keeping one’s cards safe should be easy enough, it’s not a complicated task like, off the top of my head, trying to sit on a swing with both hands full.

Questions abound over whether the scandal has eroded trust in Irish democracy. I feel like I’ve missed something. Were we filled to the brim with trust for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil before now? I think not. After all, there’s likely a very good reason that not a single Irish political party can consistently poll above 30%.

Think about that. No matter which party we’re talking about, at least seven out of 10 Irish people think someone else would do a better job. It’s easy to forget, but our government is well short of anything like a majority, and survives only because its bitterest enemy know that they’re even less popular still.

Maybe it’s this apathetic attitude that has our TDs taking such a lackadaisical attitude towards the process of democracy. Maybe if their unpopularity actually translated to real consequences at election time, they would learn to sit up straight in their seats and keep their finger, quite literally, on the button.

But for as long as we remain so casual about our democracy, our TDs probably will too.

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