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end corruption,stroke politics, & incompetent administration

An irrelevent club,controlling the destiny of four million people.?

"He was a big man with a great gift for humour, conversation and storytelling. He never appeared to let things get him down and was a vivid and engaging colleague around the House. (He was) a person who was controversial but a good guy and a nice person around this House," - the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern.

"On a personal basis he and I enjoyed a close relationship, principally because of a mutual interest in sport... personally, (he) was a kind and generous man." - the Fine Gael leader, Enda Kenny.

"Those who did not know him may not have realised he was such a big man. He was full of energy, an able person and, as the Taoiseach acknowledged, a great spokesperson." - the Tánaiste, Minister for Health and PD leader, Mary Harney.
No, it wasn't the passing of George Best that was being discussed. The tributes were being paid to the late Liam Lawlor.

Of course there is a long and honourable Irish tradition of not speaking ill of the dead. But the spectacle of these unalloyed tributes, all of which entirely ignored the reality of Liam Lawlor's approach to politics, reflected no credit on anybody. Only Pat Rabbitte came close to the truth when he said: "I would like to be able to say that he had used his prodigious talents exclusively in the interests of public service and to enhance politics, but I cannot say that."

But in every other contribution made to the House, not one balancing word was said. The young Green Party deputy for Liam Lawlor's constituency, Paul Gogarty, went further than anyone else when he said: "My constituency, including the area of Lucan where Liam Lawlor lived for many years, was very well served by him. We will be lucky to see a public representative ever again working so hard on behalf as his constituents as Liam Lawlor."

I'm sure they believed all this. No doubt Liam Lawlor was a good family man, a hard worker, and a diligent constituency representative according to his own lights. But by his actions he debased the currency of politics. Perhaps there was a time in his life when he had an ambition for politics and for democracy, but for most of his career he used Dáil Eireann as a base for activities that were intrinsically unworthy, and diametrically opposed to the things he was elected for. I have no doubt he had a diplomatic passport because TDs are issued with one on request, and I have equally no doubt that he used that passport to make money. In mourning the passing of a popular man, someone in Dáil Eireann should have noted that corruption in politics is corrosive and terminally damaging, and that the same popular man had contributed more than his fair share of that corrosion. But the Dáil isn't that kind of place any more. It was always a club. And those who worked there, but weren't elected, were never a real part of the club. The fact of election marked people out, made them different in some way from the rest. And those who were elected, irrespective of party, ideology or personality, always had something in common with each other. That fact alone always meant that reform of the institution, of the club, was never going to be radical. Club members don't reform themselves.

But lately, the Dáil has become a complacent and sedentary club. This is part of the genius of Bertie Ahern. He has deadened it in some ways with his non-confrontational style and his ostensible willingness to be all things to all men.

But most of all, he has accustomed members to long terms in office and has ensured that the work conditions there have improved to the point where a substantial career can be enjoyed even by those who never see government office.

I'm not one of those who argues that Dáil members should be badly paid far from it. But I do believe they should work far harder to earn their salaries than most of them do at present, and they should be engaged in work that has national significance. I know many members who, for income reasons, simply couldn't contemplate a return to their previous careers.

Next week, unless some major development distracts me, I want to set out some reforms that I believe would make a difference, and would help to make the Dáil relevant again. But for now I want to draw attention to the comfort factor associated with the long Dáil term that has been so bad for politics.

For many of the years I worked there, Dáil Eireann was a place that was in what you might call pre-election mode. The parties and their leaders were on edge because you simply never knew how quickly and suddenly the curtain could fall on a government's life. Several elections took place in that period, for which the opposition were better prepared than the outgoing government. And the result was a vibrant and often confrontational politics. But since 1997 the Dáil has effectively been in post-election mode. The significance of long terms and comfortable majorities has been seen in the deadening of real debate, and the effective loss of one of parliament's primary functions. Because within a vital and vibrant democracy, the role of the Dáil in making a government, and in forcing that government to retain the confidence of the Dáil, is of critical importance. Without that, democracy ultimately withers.

And yet the idea that the Dáil even seems to matter in terms of what the Government does, or how it behaves, has become something of a joke.

Week after week (during the relatively few weeks the Dáil is sitting, anyway) the opposition attacks the Government, for sure. But no-one has any sense that the Government could really give a toss. The lack of any real investigative function, and the stage-managed nature of so much of the proceedings, has meant that it's all a meaningless ritual.

That atmosphere is changing a little at the moment because, inevitably, an election has to happen, and the increasing imminence of the contest sharpens the edge of debate. But the moment that election is over, the shutters will come down again, and the Dáil will go back to being the lifeless, characterless place it has become. Unless, of course, a new incoming government finally gets serious about reform.

Listening to last week's tributes, though, you'd wonder. Sooner or later, Dáil Eireann will go through the same charade about Charles J Haughey.

He wasn't just a member of the club, after all, but club captain in his day. He did more than any other individual to damage the reputation of the institution that will pay tribute to him when his time comes. But the rules of the club are sacred, aren't they?

"To smile and smile and still to be a villain"

(An article by Fergus Finlay writing in the "Examiner" newspaper.2/12/05)