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Latest Dáil row sees Woulfe controversy evolve into political saga

Inside Politics: Opposition parties withdraw from business committee over Helen McEntee’s refusal to enter into question-and-answer session

Good morning – whatever about the long-awaited and hotly contested reopening of the economy after weeks of restrictive lockdown, how about that row on the Dáil business committee?

True, given momentous events under way in the State, an internal battle on a committee that sits privately, rarely agrees and has little actual power may seem more than a little niche, even in a newsletter for political anoraks. But bear with us.

Minister for Justice Helen McEntee’s ongoing refusal to enter into a full question-and-answer session over the controversy surrounding Séamus Woulfe’s appointment to the Supreme Court has now officially morphed into one of the lesser-spotted political animals. Not so minor a thing as a mere controversy, nor quite as urgent as a crisis, it is now a political saga.

And the latest chapter in this epic was written late on Tuesday evening, when, in a co-ordinated move, the seven Opposition groupings withdrew from the business committee, which sets the agenda for the Dáil’s week on the preceding Thursday.


A little bit of background: the Opposition has been attempting for over a week now to force a Dáil statement followed by questions and answers with Ms McEntee on the matter. Last week, the Meath East TD made it clear she was willing to address the issue during her normal oral parliamentary questions at a time of the Opposition’s choosing – an offer rejected as piecemeal. The Opposition argued there were restrictive rostering issues and that questions would be grouped and seen in advance, making it an altogether less risky parliamentary engagement.

The Government seems equally dug in, dismissing the move as a political stunt and saying the effective collapse of the business committee is “disproportionate”, given the fact Ms McEntee has agreed on the principle of answering questions in the Dáil.

The Opposition has kept up its efforts, which have been quashed by the Government, which is willing to use its great big thumping majority to trample all over the issue when it is raised at the Dáil order of business on a Tuesday. The latest move, displaying a striking degree of co-ordination, doesn’t change the fundamental political arithmetic.

But the decision to self-immolate does show Opposition parties are going to try and make life as visibly uncomfortable for the Government as possible. They will dress up the move in the perfumed tones of indignation about parliamentary accountability and democratic norms, but really they just want to press home one question: if Ms McEntee is unwilling to commit to the full Q&A, why is that the case? And that is a question increasingly being asked, privately, by Government TDs.

The Dáil statement and questions is the normal pressure-release valve for a mid-level political controversy. Oireachtas veterans point out it rarely amounts to more than a star chamber for the Opposition, with plenty of speechifying and few punches landed. They argue that had the Minister just done it by now, it would be over and done with.

However, without the valve released, the pressure is still inside the political system, and that is an unpredictable and potentially dangerous situation. The longer the saga goes on, the more likely something – anything – unexpected happens to add fuel to the fire and make the next chapter of the saga a little more like a crisis.

Read our news story on the deepening political row here.

Miriam Lord's latest on the McEntee/Woulfe affair is here.

Elsewhere, the broad shape and size of the economic reopening is starting to take shape, meaning there may be few Christmas surprises left by the time the Government announcement comes on Thursday or Friday. With so many leaks, it’s a bit like budget week, if not quite the full “Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting”.

As we report in our lead article this morning, hotels are now expected to reopen next week, with shops, hairdressers, museums and galleries also in line to open their doors. Concerns over alcohol in congregated settings mean the fate of restaurants and pubs that serve food are still in the balance, but wet pubs will be disappointed again.

The Government has been emboldened by reams of data and statistical analyses it has gathered in advance of reopening, should it have to go up against the recommendations of the boffins on the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet), which meets today for the final time ahead of the planned relaxation of measures.

After the mid-November blip, cases continue to trend down in an encouraging direction, with 226 recorded last night, the lowest since late September – before Level 5 was even suggested. However, we are not at the publicly declared target of between 50 and 100 cases a day by the end of November.

Political editor Pat Leahy's Q&A on what we know so far is here, and analysis of the Government's data-crunching is here.

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Away from the Dáil, Nphet is holding an all-important meeting today that will decide its advice to Government in advance of the end of Level 5 restrictions.

In the Convention Centre, the Dáil will hear a motion on Greyhound Racing from the Social Democrats before Leaders’ Questions from Sinn Féin, Solidarity-People Before Profit, the Regional Group and the Independent Group.

There are a series of votes before Taoiseach’s questions and topical issues, and Brexit legislation is due later in the afternoon

The full Dáil schedule is here.

The Seanad will debate the Planning and Development Bill, a motion on the Horse and Greyhound Racing Fund and the Criminal Justice (Theft and Fraud Offences) (Amendment) Bill 2020. In the evening, all parties are expected to support a motion calling for a full, independent public judicial inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane. The motion has been put forward by Sinn Féin and is supported by the Government.

The full schedule is here.

The most interesting committee fare is to be found at the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications Networks, where perennial consumer favourite Eir is to be hauled over the coals. We have a preview of Eir's apology here.

The arts committee will discuss the impact of Covid-19 on dance instructors and practitioners, before hearing from the Arts Council, while officials from the Department of Housing are up at the Public Accounts Committee.

Junior Ministers Thomas Byrne and Damien English are up at the committees on European Union affairs and enterprise, trade and employment, respectively, with the latter addressing the thorny issue of the Debenhams workers. Officials from the Department of Social Protection will give evidence on the Pandemic Unemployment Payment at the social protection committee.

The full schedule is here.