Although there are many far more important issues flying around, the recent kerfuffle on parliamentary dress-codes may be one of those things that illustrates important differences in people’s point of view.
Certain members of the Dail are wearing casual clothing in the Chamber of the House, and other members disapprove. Pink polo shirts, no jackets, sleeves rolled up. Horrid and inappropriate, says the Ceann Comhairle and other members. Sensible and comfortable, say others. Is it right to be concerned about what TDs are wearing and if so what should be done about this situation?
There are a number of different points. First, I think it’s right that TDs should wear clothing that respects the seriousness of the proceedings in the Dail Chamber. Turning up in beach shorts and flip-flops would, IMHO, indicate a casualness about the whole thing that would be wrong. Second, it’s apparent that this view is not shared by everyone, and this includes some TDs.
TDs are elected representatives of the people. This is, in many ways, a sacred position and it’s certainly a position that gives one certain rights. For instance, TDs have special privileges on their way to and from the Dail. They have special privileges about what they can say in the Dail.
Should it be possible for a Dail Committee or even for the government itself to set rules for what TDs should wear? If the answer to that question is yes, then where does the line of compliance get drawn? Would it be possible for a Dail Committee or for the government to set rules on what is appropriate for TDs to say or to think? I guess most people would say not. Now, there ARE rules on what TDs can say in speeches in the Dail. IIRC they’re not allowed to use obscene language or to call people liars. I have some problems with these rules too but they are limits of decency and offensiveness and not of taste. The proposed clothing rules are rules of taste. Mick Wallace’s shirts are not indecent or offensive.
Then, there are two more points worth making.
First is that even if we were to talk about decency in the chamber, are clothes the main issue? Gerry Adams believes that it’s OK to blow up Irish people in pursuit of Irish unity and that it’s fine to wear his sleeves rolled up. One of the TDs from Dun Laoghaire believes that the solution to Ireland’s social and economic problems is to try to create a socialist paradise and that casual clothes are appropriate for the Dail. I believe that two of these four views are indecent and offensive (if not plain stupid) but Gerry and Richard are elected TDs and Ireland is a free country, more or less. Key point; is a TD entitled to say things that others might consider indecent? In my view, yes. Is a government or a Committee entitled to limit what a TD can say or wear? In my view, no.
Second, what if clothes were a major issue? What if, for instance, there was a ban on the burqa in Ireland and there was a muslim women in the Dail who believed that the burqa should be legal, had run for election on that policy, and wanted to wear the burqa in the chamber? What if pink was banned in the chamber and David Norris was a TD not a Senator?
TDs are a special breed, with special rights and obligations. They are elected by the people and are the people’s representatives. They have a sacred obligation to represent the people’s best interests. They often fail, but that’s their duty nonetheless. As for their rights? It’s to speak their mind and to express their point of view without fear or hindrance. In my view not even the government and certainly not a mere Committee has any moral right to limit a TD’s free expression in the chamber beyond requirements to prevent gross indecency or to allow the chamber to function in a reasonable way.
We could quibble about the details, but rules prohibiting pink polo shirts or requiring tailored jackets certainly don’t come under either of those categories. If the electorate doesn’t want to see Gerry with his sleeves rolled up then they can decide not to vote for him next time. Meantime, they voted for him this time and even if he were in a minority of one, we live in a Republic.
People are entitled to be different. TDs especially so. For the government to believe that it has the right to “make” TDs wear appropriate clothing illustrates a tendency to authoritarianism that’s downright worrying.
I ran in the election. I wore a suit on the campaign trail. I thought it the right thing to do. I would probably have worn a suit in the Dail. I think it’s generally the right thing to do, but if Ming or Mick or Gerry or Richard disagree then that is their decision and their right and only the voters have the ultimate right to expel them from the Dail.
Meantime if you don’t like casual clothes in the Dail ask yourself how much you like former (and current?) members of terrorist organisations in the Dail. Ask yourself how much you like corruption. Now look at the list of the top 5 vote getters in the last election and tell me if you still think dress-codes are the biggest problem our democracy has. If I remember correctly, the Top 5 were Gerry Adams, Enda Kenny, Shane Ross, Pearse Doherty and Michael Lowry (not in that order). Dress Codes are not something our democracy should worry about.