During the course of a Dáil debate yesterday evening on the establishment of the Cervical Check Tribunal Bill 2019, Deputy Mattie McGrath made the following comments in relation to Minister Simon Harris:
“The Minister should have been gone from here 12 months ago or much sooner, but he was kept in power. Fianna Fáil Members told us that because of the confidence and supply agreement, it could not bring him down. However, the more senior Minister, the Minister for Justice and Equality, was pushed out of power because that Minister did not suit them.
They all cosied up together and allowed the Minister to carry on. The Minister for Health is not fit for office. Someone has to be held accountable and he is the political head of the HSE. He got away with blue murder; it is unbelievable. ….It would cause no issue if the Minister for Health were to go, and we could be rid of him; good riddance to bad rubbish.”
Now there is no doubt that this is robust language, delivered by a politician who is unafraid to speak his mind.
The question is; was his choice of language a step too far? In particular, did Mattie’s description of Simon Harris as “not fit for office,” cross the line?
According to Fine Gael TD, Bernard Durkan, this is absolutely the case. In fact, Deputy Durkan went even further in his reply to Mattie. Here is what he said:
“I would never come to a judgmental decision and say that the Minister, or anybody else in this House, whether in government or in opposition, was unfit to do his or her job, and nor should I. People come into this House in good faith and to serve their country, their constituency and the community. They do it very well and have done since the foundation of the State. It is very easy to take away from somebody's character by saying that they are not fit to do his or her job.”
Even taking Deputy Durkan’s sense of loyalty to his party colleague into account; the intial part of this statement cannot be seen as anything other than ludicrously silly.
Does he really mean to suggest that regardless of what conduct a Minister or TD may engage in they can never be described as ‘unfit’ to do their job? More than this-does he mean to suggest that even if they are unfit, we ‘should’ never say so?
What would that actually look like in reality?
If this is what he means, then I presume he would have no difficulty in abolishing parliamentary accountability mechanisms like the ‘No Confidence’ Motions that TD’s have at their disposal?
For what else is a No Confidence Motion but a declaration by a political party that a Minister or TD has conducted themselves in such a way as to be no longer fit for the office they hold-either through incompetence or potentially, plain old corruption.
The wider issue here is that the kind of statement made by Deputy Durkan reflects a broader political drive to shut down legitimate criticism by characterising it as ‘judgemental’ language, with all the moralising overtones that this implies.
Being civil is important-but being accountable is more important. Particularly in political life where the actions or inability of a senior Minister can wreak havoc on an entire population.