In praise of… the Dáil bar (and parliamentary bars everywhere)

So last week the Dublin press (or some of them) were baying for blood over the Dail Bar bill on the night of the abortion legislation had deputies and Senators at their legislative work till 5 in the morning (are you still reading Stormont?).

What set them off was the lap-gate ‘scandal’, which involved a very drunk Fine Gael TD Tom Barry hauling party colleague Aine Collins onto his lap at 2.40am. However the rise in takings at the bar – on a night when almost every representative was in the building – actually appear rather modest, when you count it up on a per head basis:

179 pints of Guinness and lager were bought at the Dail members’ bar on July 11, compared to 29 pints on June 26 and 46 pints on an July 18, also Wednesday nights.

That’s a great deal less than a pint per head if most of the combined house (226 Deputies and Senators) were there that night. Some, like Deputy Adams, have called for restrictions on the sale of alcohol in the Oireachtas.

Now, there is no case for a TD turn up as drunk as Deputy Barry did that night. But by the media’s own account, there is also no evidence of widespread lassitude towards the duty to present soberly to parliament, as has been claimed.

Certainly there is no case for subsidising the parliamentary bars in Dublin or anywhere else. But the member’s bar in particular provides a space away from the eyes of the chattering classes, the media, and the self interested lobby.

It’s where opponents can meet, rub shoulders and, if not to do deals, get the opportunity to size up what weight to attribute to the handshake of a political opponent.

Outbursts like Barry’s should be treated in its own terms. And if the Dail was not almost completely a creature of the executive, it ought to deal with such transgressions fairly, but toughly.

As noted in my piece on compromise in politics, some politicians have “no time for opinions other than their own”. The Dáil bar is a place where the highly conversational business of politics can flourish outside the controlled and formal channels of the party whips.

And that may be something with which some party leaders are more comfortable than others…