Just over a year ago I was appointed Government Chief Whip. It is an honour and a privilege to hold this office with its varied responsibilities and duties that are central to the running of the Dáil, specifically with regard to Government business.
The irregularities in voting that occurred in this chamber last Thursday have severely damaged the position of trust given to every member of this House.
The quality of our decisions has been called into question, decisions which affect the lives of everyone in this country.
These are decisions everyone may not agree with but that are taken by the majority of members sent here as deputies from their constituencies, their communities.
The facts are that some TDs have voted more than once while others have voted for colleagues that are not even in the Dáil chamber. This completely undermines the confidence that the public, that the electorate are entitled to have, and must have, in how our parliament conducts one of its most important duties.
The Constitution is clear – members must be present and voting; present not just in Leinster House but in the Dáil chamber; a chamber where the doors are locked in an act that is both symbolic and serious. It says nobody can enter and nobody can leave until our business, our duty has been done.
Voting for colleagues who are in the Dáil chamber is one thing and I think we can agree that it has been common place. It happens for various reasons:
- TDs receiving important phone calls or messages,
- TDs raising important issues from their constituency with relevant ministers,
- TDs discussing Dáil business, legislation or policy issues.
As Deputy Tommy Broughan pointed out at the Committee on Procedure this week, the voting block on Thursday is one of the few occasions when all members of the Houses are together.
However, as the report notes, voting for one’s colleague with approval while they are in the chamber is not best practice and it should not continue.
Voting for colleagues who are absent from the chamber is completely and utterly different.
It is entirely wrong. It undermines the integrity of the votes. It abuses the privileged position that TDs have in representing their constituents. And it brings this House and the role of the public representative into disrepute.
This is about trust –
- trust in deputies to do the right thing;
- trust in people to fulfil their mandate, to do their jobs;
- trust in a voting system which we introduced to allow us work more efficiently and quickly.
We all get used to the routine of this chamber and are lulled into a sense of familiarity. But familiarity cannot breed contempt here. Here, we hold a deep, century-old trust which we can never betray.
These events have weakened that trust and we all must make every effort to regain and rebuild it.
Everyone can make a mistake. A TD can sit in the wrong seat – even though the voting panels are numbered. A TD can press the wrong button and vote in an unintended way. But mistakes like these can be rectified easily as long as they are reported immediately, before the result is read into the official record.
The deputies concerned have done a grave disservice to their mandate, to their constituents and to their colleagues. There is no way of explaining this away. It was wrong. It was thoughtless. It was cavalier. And it was arrogant.
Voting more than once is wrong and reckless. Voting for other deputies who are not in the chamber is wrong and reckless.
This behaviour has damaged the Dáil. It has damaged the confidence that voters should, and must have, in how our parliament plays its pivotal role in our democracy.
No country can afford the luxury of ignoring, abusing or disrespecting democracy – it is too valuable, too sacred and too fragile to do so.
In a real way, what happened last week does all three. It diminishes all of us to an extent but greatly diminishes those members responsible.
Confidence has to be restored. The damage has to be repaired. And the recommendations in the report from the Committee on Procedure must not be treated as mere suggestions but as requirements to be implemented immediately.
Today’s report from the Committee is a first step in repairing the damage.
And while not compelled to do so, the four deputies concerned can take their first step in repairing the damage by addressing this House this afternoon.