Gnó na Dála - Business of Dáil

I want to bring two matters to the attention of the House. A little earlier today I received the following from the Taoiseach:

In accordance with Standing Order 26 (1), I request you to summon Dáil Éireann to meet at 20.00 hours on Tuesday, 15th September, 2020 for the purpose of considering:

Questions (Minister for Health) and

Questions (Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine).

On my own behalf I will clarify, lest anyone think I had a sudden rush of blood to the head earlier. Ruling No. 221 provides that: "By virtue of the fact that Chair is sole judge of order, he may rule on matters not specifically covered by Standing Orders." Earlier today the Chair having received an extremely urgent communication from Government, and in accordance with that communication, ruled that the House should adjourn forthwith. We are now in a position, on request from the Taoiseach, to proceed so we are proceeding to-----

On a point of order.

This is a very strange ruling. I would like the Ceann Comhairle to outline his ruling in writing to Members.

Which ruling is very strange?

The ruling to adjourn the Dáil earlier. I rang the Taoiseach to question him on what was happening, and to say that I did not understand why the Dáil was adjourned. The Taoiseach subsequently rang me back to say he agreed and that he had asked for the Dáil to be reconvened. We have 19 junior ministers. I am not sure what the legal basis was for this. Under the Constitution the House sets its own rules, as we all know, but a precedent has been set here. We are living in different times. This could happen again and there could be issues like this again. The Dáil adjourned in such a rush that we did not get a full explanation, dare I say it, from the Ceann Comhairle of whichever Standing Order under which it was done and the manner in which it was done. What was the chain of communication by which the Ceann Comhairle came to this decision, who told him and what was the chain of that conversation all the way back? That all needs to be outlined to Members in this special situation. I am not sure, but I doubt that if I had not made that phone call to the Taoiseach we would be back here now. He queried it and I acknowledge he was not fully aware of the facts at the time because he had just come back, but in fairness he subsequently questioned it. I would like to know who the Taoiseach spoke to. As a result of that we are now back in the House. On what basis was the decision made? What were the Standing Orders? What were the communications by which the Ceann Comhairle was communicated with to make that decision? Why did the Ceann Comhairle not just come into the Dáil and instead of saying what he said, which took everybody by surprise, just explained it in the detail that was necessary? This is unprecedented. I am not sure it has ever happened in this way before. I would like a lot more information on how the decision came about. Was there a role whereby the acting Chief Medical Officer advised the Chief Whip who advised the Clerk of the Dáil? What was the process? This could have other ramifications.

This is an incredible shambles. Members had been informed on social media that the Dáil was adjourned until next Tuesday. I work with a team of 37 Deputies, and there are 160 Deputies in total. There was a clear schedule of business, including questions, statements, and a Private Member's motion. It was hours of business. We were trying to relay the information we were given in a complete vacuum. I am the whip for a party with 37 Deputies and nobody from this institution contacted me this evening. Nobody told me what was going on or what was happening. I had to rely on political correspondents on Twitter. How embarrassing is it for our democracy that political correspondents on Twitter knew more and that I had no information for the 37 Deputies I work with? I had to go on Twitter to see what was happening and what was developing. What has happened this evening is absolutely outrageous. I totally support the proposal by Deputy Alan Kelly. Our party demands a full explanation as to how the Dáil was adjourned and how our business has been so badly disrupted.

We now have proposals for business tomorrow but we do not know if we will be in the convention centre or in the Dáil. We have a meeting at 9 o'clock. I finally had to ring the Government Chief Whip and, in fairness, he gave me a draft schedule that had been put together. There was no communication whatsoever from this institution. It is absolutely shocking and I need an explanation.

I reiterate the comments of my two colleagues on the Business Committee, Deputies Kelly and Mac Lochlainn. We had no communication either. I made contact with the Clerk to try to find out what was going on because I was reading on Twitter about what was happening in the House. It is not good enough.

I accept that we have three Airí Stáit in the Chamber from the Department of Health. I appreciate and understand that. I cannot understand, however, why we could not have the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, who I presume socially distanced at Cabinet and who was not there for more than two hours because he did not go to the press conference afterwards. If the Aire comes to the House this evening, it will be the fourth Minister in three months from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine accountable to this House. Surely a mechanism could be found where the Minister could be in one of the committee rooms to answer parliamentary questions in the House, rather than us having to wait for another set of questions, which will be after the budget, to hear anything from the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine himself.

I do not believe for one second that the Ceann Comhairle had a rush of blood to the head. I believe he was acting on news that must have come quickly to him and on the best advice from the Clerk.

I would like clarification on Topical Issue matters. I had intended to raise a very important issue on damage done to roads in west Cork due to flooding in August, and I am seeking funding for same. By the looks of it, I will not get that chance tonight. I seek clarification on whether Topical Issue matters will be taken tonight. If they are not taken tonight will the Topical Issue matters chosen for discussion tonight be taken tomorrow instead? It is very important for my constituents that I raise this issue.

That is a very simple question. The only matters that can be taken tonight are the matters that have been directed by the Taoiseach to be taken. It would be our intention that the Topical Issue matters selected today would be carried forward to tomorrow.

It is outrageous for anybody to even suggest that anything the Ceann Comhairle did was anything other than acting in the best interests of this House. Given the basis of the information the Ceann Comhairle was given at the time he was given it, he was acting in what I would call the utmost of good faith.

Rather than going along the lines of Deputy Alan Kelly's proposal and having a post mortem on the last couple of hours around what happened, who said what to whom, and when they said it, perhaps it would be more progressive to discuss what way we shall go forward for the next few days and for the next week. I believe the people of Ireland would like to see us discussing what way we will go forward, rather than analysing that last hours and if there was a hiccup, a mix-up or a problem.

The one thing nobody has said yet is that we hope everyone who is self-isolating and who has this difficulty will be well. We want to continue with our work and to lay out our programme of work. For anybody to try to find fault with the Ceann Comhairle's work ethic would be beyond contempt-----

It was about the communication. Nobody questioned-----

I am not interrupting the Deputy; I am just saying what I am saying and-----

The Deputy is not being honest and truthful.

Deputies, please.

All I am saying is what I want to say, and it is very clear. If anybody else wants to criticise that or say what they like, it is up to them.

Deputy Healy-Rae is misrepresenting what people said.

The Ceann Comhairle just informed the Dáil that we will do what the Taoiseach directed us to do. That might have been a slip of the tongue, and if it was I invite the Ceann Comhairle to clarify that. We have a Constitution and we have three branches of Government. One has barely functioned for the past three months, one is in self-isolation, and we are sitting. The role of the Taoiseach is not to tell the Dáil what to do. It is the role of the Dáil to hold the Taoiseach to account. I am quite concerned. I am not looking for a post mortem but I agree with colleagues in the Chamber that we must recognise this is a shambles and ensure it does not happen again.

We are elected.

As human beings, we all fail repeatedly, but as a collective, as a Legislature, we are elected to show leadership but that is sorely missing in this State at this moment.

I will deal with the last question first. Standing Order 26(1) is quite clear that when the House has been adjourned, as it was and is then recalled on foot of a summons of the Taoiseach , the only work that can be transacted is the work set out by the Taoiseach in the summons so that is why we are where we are.

I have absolutely no difficulty with the questions from Deputies Alan Kelly and Mac Lochlainn and others; they are absolutely legitimate and in order. Just for the sake of clarity, I arrived here to take health questions. It was indicated to me before I arrived that there might be a problem with the Minister for Health's availability. While we were waiting, I was approached by a very senior member of the team who had received a message from Government to the effect that there were - I am not sure what terminology we should use, whether it is self-isolation or whatever - problems with the availability of Ministers to transact business here. The advice that we were receiving from Government was that the House should adjourn and that it would be recalled in due course by the Taoiseach. Now that is quite simple and straightforward and the Taoiseach has now clarified the matter and recalled the House. I have no difficulty with how I acted. I do not think anybody else would have acted any differently. How we came to be asked to take that action at that particular time is another story but we need to get on with the business now. I hope my explanation is crystal clear to everyone. Is it?

The Ceann Comhairle will put that in writing, I take it.

The Deputy wants me to put it in writing.

That is what I asked for at the beginning-----

I will put it in writing but whether I put it in writing or verbalise it, I am saying the exactly the same thing. I have no problem at all-----

Just the process by which the Dáil adjourned. The Ceann Comhairle has outlined it to us now but it is just the detail of that process. Obviously the Taoiseach or somebody approached somebody and the Dáil ended up being adjourned and the process by which that happened-----

No, it is not my understanding that the Taoiseach approached anyone.

Okay, that is clarified.

It is not my understanding that that happened. As I said, ruling No. 221 provides that in circumstances where the Chair deems it necessary and it would have been necessary in the emergency situation that was described to me and in compliance with what I understood to be the wish of Government. The House has been adjourned before in quite different circumstances. When Seán Barrett was in the Chair, we had an incident here involving a Deputy who decided to sit-in for a period of time and eventually the House was adjourned in similar circumstances.

I fully accept the Ceann Comhairle's explanation-----

The issues that were raised by Deputies are reasonable. Deputy Kelly raised the question of how the decision was communicated to the Ceann Comhairle but the bigger concern for me was the fact that the first I learned of the Dáil being recalled this evening was on the six o'clock news when the Taoiseach spoke about it. Political correspondents seem to have more information than we did. My colleague raised a legitimate point because there was no communication with him as a whip. That is the point and that is not good enough. Whatever about when decisions have to be made and I accept that the Ceann Comhairle made his decision in good faith. I was here in the Chamber when he got that news and I fully accept that but what happened in the following few hours, when there was very poor, if any, communication with parties and Deputies and we had to learn from the Taoiseach on the news that we might be sitting at 8 o'clock is not good practice.

Again, to clarify, when communications from Government were received by my office indicating that it wished, contrary to what we understood earlier, to reconvene the House this evening, we indicated that a summons would be required from the Taoiseach. That summons was duly produced. I directed and the Clerk instigated a request for a meeting of the Business Committee to be convened to look at the business that might be transacted tomorrow because issues arise from the fact that the Dáil was scheduled to meet in the convention centre. The Special Committee on Covid-19 Response is also due to meet tomorrow, as is the Seanad, so there are significant matters, including matters of business, to be considered and they will be dealt with at 9 o'clock at the Business Committee meeting that we have convened to enable everybody to have an input.

May we now proceed with the health questions?

What I am interpreting, based on the Ceann Comhairle's guidance, is that the Government's advice to him left him with no option but to make the call that he made. That is the interpretation I take from that. Then no whip on the opposition side, and there are seven in total, or leader was communicated with directly, apart from Deputy Alan Kelly's conversation with the Taoiseach. There was no direct communication with us from the Government side to outline to us ideas about how we would deal with the schedule, whether we were convening tonight and so on. We had to rely on political correspondents who were clearly being briefed by Government sources while no whip in this House was being briefed. This is a very serious matter. The Government's advice left the Ceann Comhairle with no choice but to adjourn the business and I accept that, but in the interim, the Government was briefing political journalists about its plans. Not one whip got a phone call to be consulted about the reconfiguring of the schedule or to be advised of the Government's plans. That is what has happened here tonight.

I am afraid that I cannot respond on behalf of the Government Whip or any whip. I am not responsible but I sympathise with the Deputy's position. Three minutes after leaving the Chamber here I heard it reported on a radio station that a Government spokesperson was unaware of what had just happened in the Dáil. The Deputy can imagine my surprise at that. Anyway, we are now where we are. Can we please get on with the health questions? It is great to see such interest in the questions on health. The first question is from Deputy Cullinane.