Our parliament, the Dáil, faced controversy this week after it emerged that TDs (members of the Dáil) have been voting on behalf of other TDs when they have been absent from the Chamber, including one who voted on six different occasions on behalf of the same colleague. A report by the Clerk of the Dáil into the issue has recommended an overhaul of the voting rules but has made no findings against any of the TDs involved and has recommended no sanctions. So that’s ok then…
Today was the day.
It was now three weeks since I had won my seat in the Dáil, standing as an Independent candidate in a bye-election in my constituency and scraping home after not being regarded as a serious threat, essentially the Donald Trump of County Wicklow.
And now I was ready, proudly ready to represent my people as their TD, and eagerly looking forward to the impassioned speeches, the vigorous but fair debates, the thrill of cliff-hanger votes.
I straightened my tie, took a deep breath, and pulled opened the door to the Dáil Chamber.
It was empty.
Well, not empty. The Taoiseach, our prime minister, was walking among the seats carrying a large clipboard. He looked up as I entered, and looked confused, then annoyed and then, as if remembering that every person is a potential vote, solicitous and helpful.
“I’m afraid you’ve missed the public tour,” he said, “but if you like I could get a porter -”
I told him my name, a little coldly, a little disappointed that he didn’t recognise me.
He looked blank for a second, then his face brightened. “Oh, you’re the new guy,” he said. “The TD for er, um -”
“Wicklow,” I said, a little more coldly. The Taoiseach was from Dublin, and was thus inclined to regard people from anywhere outside Dublin as being from the wilderness of Anywhereoutsidedublin.
“Yes, well, you’re very welcome,” he said, “if you hang on till I finish this I’ll show you around – the Bar, the Gym, the – well, that’s about it really.”
He looked down at his clipboard, then pressed one of two buttons on the arm of the seat in front of him. He moved to the next seat and repeated the process.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“We’re voting,” he said.
“Who’s we?” I asked.
“The Dáil,” he said patiently, as if he were talking to a small child. “The one hundred and fifty-eight members are voting.” He pressed a button at the next seat, and moved on again.
“But they’re not here,” I said.
“Of course not,” he said. He saw the look of surprise on my face. “Look,” he said, “remember the kerfuffle about TDs voting on behalf of their friends who weren’t actually here?”
“I do, of course,” I said haughtily, “I thought it was -”
“And remember how the Clerk of the Dáil said it was ok to do that?”
“That’s not what he said,” I corrected him. “He just didn’t recommend any sanctions.”
“Same thing,” said the Taoiseach, waving his hand dismissively. “Well, after that the practice grew. Some TDs were coming in with lists of twenty others to cast votes for. One actually started charging his colleagues for doing it. Well, naturally we had to put a stop to that -”
“I should say so -”
“- so all the parties met and decided that just the Taoiseach should do it. For everybody.”
“That’s shocking,” I said.
“It’s a bit of a pain alright,” said the Taoiseach, “but then I do get paid more than everyone else.”
“So you’re saying that they just turn up for the debates, tell you how they’re going to vote, then sod off,” I said, getting angrier by the second.
“No, that’s not what I’m saying,” he said.
“Oh, good, because -”
“They don’t turn up for the debates at all,” he said.
“Why bother?” he said. “They’re not going to be voting anyway.”
“But there are official records of the debates,” I said.
“The Dáil staff draw them up,” said the Taoiseach. “Everyone sends an email saying how they want to vote, sometimes someone will say something like ‘and I if I was there I would have dragged a reference to my local hospital into the debate’, and the staff draw up a likely sounding debate from that.”
“That’s dreadful, making them do that,” I said.
“Making them?” said the Taoiseach. “They love doing it, they have enormous fun. They get to write jokes, and insults, and witty put-downs. They’ve made oratorical legends of quite a few TDs who in real life couldn’t say their own name without having to stop in the middle to think.” He stopped in front of the next seat. “This guy, for instance,” he said. “Hasn’t, according to the record, missed a vote since he was elected in 1982, passionate advocate of behalf of the people of his county, supposed coiner of the phrase ‘rain tax’ to describe the proposed water charges, and -” he pressed the No button – “I’ve never met him.”
“So what does everyone do instead?” I asked.
The Dáil in full session
“They stay working for their constituencies,” he said. “They get pot-holes fixed, or a new set of traffic-lights installed, or dig the first shovelful of earth for putting in a new bus shelter. Important stuff.”
“The stuff that gets them re-elected,” I said.
“Exactly,” said the Taoiseach. He looked down at the next seat, then at his clipboard. “Oh, this is you,” he said. And pressed the Yes button.
“Hang on,” I said. “You can’t just assume I was going to vote yes.”
“It’s the Fisheries Protocols (Special Provision In The Event Of A Border In The Irish Sea, With Regard To The Entanglement Of Nets) Amendment Act 2019, Second Reading,” said the Taoiseach calmly. “Which way were you thinking of voting?”
“Er, well, I don’t know,” I said. “I suppose I’d have researched it, talked to affected parties, listened to the debate – or, rather, read the debate, it seems, then thought carefully about it -”
“Horse manure,” said the Taoiseach. “We didn’t have an email from you because you’re new, but because you are new we knew you’d be here with one particular cause that you’re really keen to get support for -”
I nodded. “Monthly stipends for humorous bloggers,” I said.
“Whatever,” said the Taoiseach, “and for that reason we knew that in this very first vote you would side with the Government.”
I thought about it. “I suppose you’re right,” I said in a low voice.
The Taoiseach smiled at me. “Cheer up,” he said. “If it makes you feel any better, we’re going to lose this one anyway.” He pressed another No button. “Perils of a minority Government.”
I watched in silence as he went on, pushing his own Government, button by button, towards defeat.
“Why don’t you just change a few of the No votes to Yes?” I asked.
He looked at me in horror. “That would be treating democracy as a joke,” he said.