The accusation that our elected representatives carry on more like parochial messenger boys and less like national legislators is often thrown about.
Membership of the Dáil includes the persistent few, who prompt eye rolls every week when they raise one of their special interest topics that are so hyper-local they border on the farcical.
But what should we really be expecting from our TDs?
A recent complaint made against members of the Oireachtas health committee to the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC), casts a new light on the role of our politicians and the expectations the public have of them.
It is understood a group had flagged an issue it had with the Irish Medical Council with the health committee, but because the committee has no authority to direct the council on policy, it decided not to take up the complaint.
The group has since taken a case to the WRC on the basis the decision of the committee was discriminatory.
The development has undoubtedly unnerved members of the Dáil, who are contacted and lobbied by constituents on a daily basis.
Privately, TDs told Irish Examiner Political Correspondent Paul Hosford that the case could create a precedent whereby TDs are brought before hearings because they fail to achieve desired outcomes for their constituents or groups.
One said it would make TDs “client relations managers”.
Constituency work both friend and foe
Constituency work is both the friend and foe of TDs.
Having a strong reputation as a person who can get things done on the ground has often saved a politician’s scalp.
This was seen during the 2002 election meltdown for Fine Gael. While the party dropped from 54 to 31 seats, a number of TDs, including Michael Ring, David Stanton and Michael Noonan, retained their seats.
It was replicated in 2011 for Fianna Fáil, when the likes of Willie O’Dea, John McGuinness and Éamon Ó Cuív survived the trouncing their party received in the polls.
However, constituency work does not just serve an individual politician at election time, it can and should also serve the people.
A need for national change can be identified through constituency work, with Fine Gael TD Bernard Durkan claiming his clinics act as a “means of inspiration as to what needs to be done by way of legislative change.”
This was echoed by Kerry TD Brendan Griffin who said: “Nearly everything that will come up in your constituency, from individual meetings and working with constituents on issues that are of importance to them personally will have a national element, whether it’s social welfare, a medical card case or a Susi grant, the terms and conditions and the criteria that impact on people are decided at national level.
There’s a direct correlation between your individual work for people in the constituency and your role as a national legislator.
“That said, there can be times where there’s not enough time given to focus on some of the national issues of the day because you might have a particularly pressing constituency day, for example, on a Monday or Friday.”
Independent TD Denis Naughten bluntly admits our electoral system means you won’t get re-elected unless you do the constituency-based work.
However, he says those who criticise constituency work fail to recognise the direct link between local concerns and how this can impact legislative change.
Being a national politician who works at a local level is not uniquely Irish.
Citing France, the UK and Canada, Trinity College political scientist Michael Gallagher has found it is, in fact, a norm that MPs have a heavy constituency workload, and it is usually their most important role, way ahead of anything to do with parliamentary committees or legislation.
“Instead of looking down our noses at constituency work and seeing it as something to be disdained as ‘clientelism’ (a highly inaccurate term in the light of any conventional definition as to what clientelism actually entails) or discouraged, it would be better to see it as a strength of the Irish political system,” he wrote in a 2009 paper.
But he added reform may be required in the way we visualise the roles of TDs in society.
But being there to serve the public can mean the public expects their politicians to be on call 24/7.
As former minister Máire Geoghegan-Quinn put it: “Once you get elected you instantly become public property. As a TD, you become responsible for whatever it is that any one of your 100,000 constituents wants you to be responsible for. They will raise these issues with you when you are out shopping, relaxing in the pub on Sunday night or at any other time they happen to run into you.”
The elimination of double-jobbing, which allowed TDs to also hold a council seat up until 2003, has generally reduced the hyper-local queries that national politicians receive, but of course there are notable exceptions.
We still have TDs who model themselves as the person who can fill the pothole or make sure the briars on a local boreen are cut.
“When I started off in politics, I would have been getting an awful lot more pothole queries than I am today,” Mr Naughten said.
“But part of that too, is TDs having the confidence to let those issues be dealt with by their local councillors, rather than trying to retain ownership of that. It is a balancing act.”
The balance between national and local, of course, is weighted differently depending on which politician you speak to. Some favour an emphasis on legislative scrutiny and committee attendance, while others seem to attend every funeral, dinner dance and envelope-opening in their locality, at least pre-Covid.
“I always try to balance it – a third in constituency work, a third in legislation and a third on committee work,” said Mr Durkan.
Did you know?
The Constitution allows the Dáil and Seanad to make its own rules, and these are known as Standing Orders. The Standing Orders of the Seanad are enforced by the Cathaoirleach and the Standing Orders of the Dáil are enforced by the Ceann Comhairle.
Among the many detailed rules contained in Standing Orders are the days and times on which meetings may take place, the quorum necessary to constitute a meeting, the length of time for which the doors of the chamber must be locked during a division and the procedure for dealing with disorderly conduct by a member.
What to look out for this week
Tuesday: As usual, leaders’ questions kicks off the weekly Dáil proceedings from 2pm. Later in the evening, a Sinn Féin motion on regional transport infrastructure will be debated in the chamber.
Away from the Dáil, representatives from Focus Ireland and Barnardos will come before the Children’s Committee to speak about the issue of child poverty.
Over at the Foreign Affairs Committee, Minister Simon Coveney will brief members on what was discussed at recent meetings of the Foreign Affairs Council and the UN Security Council.
Wednesday: The Money Advice and Budgeting Service (Mabs) and others are warning that households face a “potential emergency” this winter trying to heat their homes as energy prices soar even higher. In this context, the Rural Independents Group is bringing a motion on the energy crisis, which will be debated on Wednesday morning.
In the Seanad, a bill to provide safe access zones is at second stage. The bill, which has cross-party support, aims to protect the free and unencumbered access to facilities providing legal termination of pregnancy services and protect individuals providing or facilitating legal termination of pregnancy services from harassment.
Social Welfare Minister Heather Humphreys recently brought the findings of the pension commission report, which suggests raising the pension age by three months every year from 2028, to Cabinet. Age Action and the Economic and Social Research Institute will be before the Committee on Social Protection to discuss the report.
Also worth tuning into is the finance committee, where Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe will be updating members on the corporation tax rate changes.
Thursday: The pligh