Opinion: as history records, some of our elected representatives have done a lot worse in the Dáil chamber than falling asleep

The new Minister for Climate Action, Communications and Transport, Eamon Ryan, has had a difficult few months. In addition to the pressure of negotiating a programme for government, he also faced an internal election that threatened his leadership of the Green Party. Although he survived the contest (by an uncomfortably close 48 vote margin), Ryan could have done without the self-imposed damage that attended two recent public gaffes: the use of a racial slur in the Dáil chamber and falling asleep during a Dáil session in the Convention Centre.

Ryan’s use of the racial slur during a recent debate – on, ironically, the issue of racism in Ireland – was a serious faux pas. Granted, he was referring to the experience of a victim, and reasonable observers accepted that Ryan’s intention was to highlight the evil of racism, not to condone or perpetuate it.

Nevertheless, even those sympathetic to Ryan’s position accepted that his use of the non-euphemised form of the word was a foolish mistake – one for which he subsequently apologised profusely – and that he should have shown greater sensitivity and cultural nous. Others, however, were less forgiving. Some within the Green Party sought to use the gaffe to undermine is leadership, with one councillor demanding Ryan’s immediate resignation.

The following month, the new minister was again apologising to the nation, as he outlined his deep regret for falling asleep during a Dáil session. Following this incident, the level of opprobrium directed towards Ryan on social media appeared greater than that which he received for using the racial slur.

It was argued that his two gaffes epitomised the "arrogance" of career politicians. In the minds of some, even if Ryan was not guilty of racism, he was certainly guilty of insensitivity. Even if the new minister had not deliberately fallen asleep on the job, it was nevertheless a blatant act of disrespect towards parliament and, by extension, towards the Irish people.

A lot worse

But a student of Irish political history would be forgiven for asking if people did not realise that TDs have often said (and done) a lot worse in the Dáil. The TV broadcast of Dáil proceedings only began in the early 1990s and had a double-edged effect. Rowdy disputes, individual misbehaviours, and the use of ‘unparliamentary’ language by members could no longer go unnoticed by the public.

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From RTÉ's Saturday Night Show, Paul Gogarty explains what brought on his infamous outburst in the Dáil

Consequently, most will be familiar with video clips of Sinn Fein's 'sit-in strike' in 2014, and the Healy-Rae brothers' angry response to Marc MacSharry in 2018, resulting in the Dáil's suspension on both occasions. Moreover, scenes such as 'Lapgate' in 2013, when a male TD pulled a female deputy onto his lap, together with the former Green Party TD, Paul Gogarty’s, infamous 'F**k you, Deputy Stagg! F**k you!' remark in 2009, are now etched onto the public consciousness – and can be found on YouTube.

Despite these examples, however, the presence of cameras has almost certainly curtailed the excesses of most TDs. As the veteran political journalist Stephen Collins observed, "far worse things" have been said in our parliament, particularly in earlier years, when members expected a level of editorial discretion (or deference) on the part of the print media. Two of the more egregious purveyors of racist and anti-Semitic language within the Dáil came from opposite ends of the civil war divide: Oliver J. Flanagan, initially an Independent and latterly a Fine Gael minister, and Martin Corry, an IRA veteran and long-serving Fianna Fáil member for Cork.

Immensely popular in his Laois-Offaly constituency, Flanagan’s early political career demonstrated something of an obsession with the perceived power of what he described as the "Jew-Masonic System". Though Ireland’s Jewish population was small, he feared their influence would undermine this nation’s "Christian values" and independence. In a particularly disturbing contribution in 1943, he opined that "there is one thing that Germany did, and that was to rout the Jews out of their country. Until we rout the Jews out of this country it does not matter a hair’s breadth what orders you make. Where the bees are there is the honey, and where the Jews are there is the money."

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From RTÉ Archives, Michael Walsh reports for RTÉ News on the funeral of Oliver J Flanagan in 1987

The Dáil record demonstrates that Corry was not shy in his use of the "N-word" and expressed racist views on occasion with respect to sub-Saharan Africans. During a 1938 Dáil speech, he advocated the use of poison gas in Northern Ireland as a means to solve partition, a remark that, given previous boasts of alleged kills during his IRA career, could scarcely be regarded as simply a joke in poor taste.  

A machine gun in a phone booth

Of course, the Dáil chamber has not only witnessed unparliamentary language. Deputies have engaged in behaviours on occasions that have ran the gamut from embarrassing to reckless. In March 1932, Éamon de Valera’s Fianna Fáil party returned to Leinster House with trepidation. Though victorious in the recent election, many Fianna Fáil supporters feared the defeated Cumann na nGaedheal administration would not hand over power to their Civil War enemies.

Consequently, some Fianna Fáil deputies – including the soon to be appointed ministers for Finance and Defence, Seán MacEntee and Frank Aiken – carried revolvers as they entered the Dáil that day. The then Independent TD, James Dillon, later attested to the air of tension generated by the nervous Fianna Fáil contingent, and witnessed one Fianna Fáiler assembling a machine gun in a phone booth. Thankfully, the change of government was as peaceful as it was democratic, and the story of armed TDs makes for an intriguing political vignette today.

The story of armed TDs makes for an intriguing political vignette today

However, the potential for disaster should not be discounted. Whilst the outgoing administration were committed to respecting Fianna Fáil’s mandate, some within the Irish Army and An Garda Síochána were concerned by the prospect of de Valera in power. Had an overly anxious Fianna Fáil TD actually brandished his weapon – or worse, discharged it – inside the Dáil chamber, the potential reaction from elements within the Irish security services could have made their relationship with the new anti-Treatyite government much more difficult, with ramifications for the stability of the state itself.   

The Dáil lockout

50 years later in March 1982, Charles Haughey was preparing to form his second administration. He would lead a minority Fianna Fáil government, supported by a number of independents and Sinn Féin-The Workers' Party (SFWP). Due in part to a lack of familiarity with parliamentary procedure, the three SFWP TDs found themselves locked outside the Dáil as the vote for Taoiseach was called (once locked, the door is not re-opened until after a vote is completed).

From RTÉ Archives, Albert Reynolds of Fianna Fáil and Ted Nealon of Fine Gael give their opinions on who will lead the country on the morning of the election of the Taoiseach in March 1982.

Eager to uphold their deal with Haughey, the three SFWP men ran towards the entrance to the press gallery overlooking the Dáil chamber (pushing past visitors and journalists in their haste). Once inside the gallery, they jumped into the Distinguished Visitor’s section, where they startled members of the Haughey family. From there they vaulted the protective partition, and clambered, unceremoniously, into the Dáil chamber, in time to support Haughey’s nomination as Taoiseach.

This was an embarrassing – though portentous – beginning for the infamous GUBU government, an administration beset by political incompetence, scandal and a lot of bad luck. Had television cameras been present, they would have recorded an unedifying scene that might still form the basis of Irish political memes to this day. Instead, we must content ourselves with minor outrage at more recent images of a genuinely busy minister who simply fell prey to exhaustion. We might all do well to consider that numerous TDs have said, and done, much worse in our parliament.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ