In July 2020, Catherine Connolly TD became the first ever woman to hold office as either Ceann Comhairle or as Leas-Cheann Comhairle in the Dáil’s 101-year history when she secured a shock victory in the secret ballot. Ciarán Galway meets with the Leas-Cheann Comhairle of the 33rd Dáil in her Leinster House office to discuss the role and her initial impressions.
Following General Election 2020, two valid nominations were received by Peter Finnegan, Clerk of Dáil Éireann, and deemed to be candidates for the position of Leas-Cheann Comhairle. In June 2016, an amendment to Dáil Éireann Standing Order 11 determined that candidates for the position be selected by secret ballot (using PR-STV) before being formally elected through an open vote in the Dáil.
Outlining the rationale which informed her decision to contest the 2020 election, Connolly indicates that she felt compelled to challenge the only other nominee, Fergus O’Dowd, a male TD from a government party.
“I went for it because I felt, as a woman, I couldn’t continue to make the critique that not enough women were putting themselves forward, that we need gender equality and then not do something about it. The rationale was not only to have a female candidate, but to have an Opposition candidate also,” she says.
In the event, Connolly narrowly defeated Fine Gael’s O’Dowd and succeeded Fianna Fáil’s Pat ‘The Cope’ Gallagher as Leas-Cheann Comhairle. With a total valid poll of 151, Connolly secured 77 votes to O’Dowd’s 74 votes on the first count.
“I was overwhelmed. We went forward believing that we hadn’t a chance. We knew that the Government had the numbers,” she remarks, adding: “I thought that if I could galvanise the Opposition, I would be proud. We talked to the Opposition parties and the support we received was overwhelming. Going into that election, I felt that we had already achieved our objective and illustrated that it was possible. When we then won, it was a shock.”
After Connolly made her official declarations and took the Chair, An Ceann Comhairle congratulated her on behalf of the members on what was an historic achievement. “It is a great occasion for her, her family and supporters and for all of us here in Dáil Éireann,” Seán Ó Fearghaíl TD stated.
In the aftermath, Connolly needed some time to digest her victory and time off in August helped her “come to terms with what I and the small group around me had achieved and the significance of it”. The recognition and sense of pride among the people of Galway, especially Connolly’s late aunt, Mary Carpenter née Connolly, brought home a sense of achievement.
“It’s a privilege. As the first female Leas-Cheann Comhairle, I think the symbolism is very important for women, particularly for young women. To go forward, not to play a game or be part of a boys’ club, or a women’s club for that matter, but to stand up and be counted and to show what’s possible,” she asserts.
Referencing her working relationship with the Ceann Comhairle, Connolly articulates her respect for Ó Fearghaíl. “He has done a very good job since assuming the role of Ceann Comhairle in 2016. When he went forward again, I had no reluctance in supporting him. I think he’s fair, just and exceptionally hardworking,” she notes.
The role of Leas-Cheann Comhairle
Article 15.9.1 of the Constitution provides for the offices of Ceann Comhairle and Leas-Cheann Comhairle, indicating that “each House of the Oireachtas shall elect from its members its own Chairman and Deputy Chairman, and shall prescribe their powers and duties”. Meanwhile, the expression ‘Leas-Cheann Comhairle’ is defined under Standing Order 5 of Dáil Éireann as the member elected by Dáil Éireann to be Deputy Chairman of Dáil Éireann.
The Leas-Cheann Comhairle undertakes the duties and exercises the authority of the Ceann Comhairle as outlined by the Dáil Standing Orders in the latter’s “unavoidable absence”. This includes:
- ensuring compliance with Standing Orders;
- ruling on the interpretation of Standing Orders where a dispute arises;
- dealing with disorderly members in breach of Standing Orders;
- presiding over debates and ensuring the relevance of members’ speeches;
- ensuring the orderly and impartial conduct of business; and
- dealing with disciplinary matters.
Therefore, on behalf of the House, the Leas-Cheann Comhairle is tasked with protecting the right of each Member, ensuring that business is pursued in a manner befitting its status as a core component of the legislature and a representative assembly to which government is constitutionally accountable. In the Chair, the Leas-Cheann Comhairle acts as an impartial presiding member.
In the absence of the Ceann Comhairle, the Leas-Cheann Comhairle also deputises as:
- an ex officio member of the Presidential Commission;
- an ex officio Chairman of the Committee on Procedure;
- chair of the executive of the Inter-Parliamentary Union;
- an ex officio chair or member of several statutory bodies;
- a member of the appeal board in relation to the registration of political parties and a member of the appeal board to hear appeals in relation to registration of nominating bodies for the Seanad election; and
- an ex officio member of the Presidents (Speakers) of Parliament of the EU.
While acknowledging that the role is well remunerated, Connolly maintains that it comes with its own set of challenges. “For instance, the Dáil will begin at 14:00 today and go on until 00:30 tonight. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle is constantly in the public eye. That’s difficult,” she emphasises.
Likewise, the new Leas-Cheann Comhairle must become more familiar with the intricacies of her role and the various constitutional requirements for occasions when the Ceann Comhairle is absent. “For example, if Deputy Ó Fearghaíl is not available as an ex officio member of the Presidential Commission, I will assume that role in his place,” Connolly adds.
As Leas-Cheann Comhairle, the TD for Galway West has also retained her role as an independent TD. “I table questions and work as I always did, though it’s a little bit more difficult to manage getting out of the Chair and then going back into fighting mode. There’s a mental adjustment required,” she explains.
Crucially, while in the Chair, the Leas-Cheann Comhairle must remain impartial. “It’s important to have fairness in procedure. I have strong opinions but I’m also able to set them aside when I assume the role of Leas-Cheann Comhairle. It’s a role that must be exercised in a fair and a just manner. I don’t have any difficulty with that.
“There is a duty on us as parliamentarians to make democracy work as best we can. To be Leas-Cheann Comhairle is a privilege. In that role you’re there as chair, keeping order while ensuring respect for each TD and providing them with an opportunity to have their say. I might disagree with their opinions but that’s irrelevant to the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, whose role it is to allow them to speak within the time allotted. Which is a challenge,” she quips.
Connolly is also a passionate Gaeilgeoir and recognises the challenge of promoting the Irish language in the Dáil and beyond.
“Seo an dúshlán i gcónaí: conas an Ghaeilge a chur chun cinn san Dáil, conas í a chur chun cinn in aon áit. Ó 2016, tá a lán machnaimh déanta agam mar gheall ar an gceist seo. Táimid in ísle brí ó thaobh na teanga de, gan aon amhras.”
While the Leas-Cheann Comhairle initially had cúpla focal from school, she committed herself to developing her fluency in the language during her time as Mayor of Galway.
“Ní raibh Gaeilge agamsa ach amháin ón scoil agus, ag pointe áirithe, bhí náire orm mar Mhéara na Gaillimhe nach raibh mo dhóthain Gaeilge agam. Thaistil mé go dtí tíortha eile agus bhí an teanga acu; dúirt mé ‘Sin é! Sin deireadh leis an náire, deireadh leis an easpa Gaeilge’. Dhírigh mé isteach ar an nGaeilge. Is féidir é a dhéanamh. Is féidir an Ghaeilge a fhoghlaim agus, de réir a chéile, d’fhoghlaim mé í agus táim fós i mbun foghlama. Rinne mé dhá chúrsa san ollscoil. Bhí an t-ádh dearg orm go raibh mé i mo chónaí sa Ghaillimh agus go raibh an ollscoil in aice liom. Rinne mé dioplóma agus ansin rinne mé cúrsa aistriúcháin.
“Is teanga álainn agus ársa í an Ghaeilge. An ceacht is mó atá foghlamtha agam ná go bhfuil an Ghaeilge iomlán difriúil ón mBéarla; sin an botún a dhéanaimid, ceapaimid go bhfuil an dá theanga mar an gcéanna agus níl siad. Is teangacha iad atá iomlán difriúil.”
Now, the TD for Galway West seeks to use Irish each day in the Dáil.
“Déanaim mo dhícheall an Ghaeilge a úsáid chuile lá sa Dáil agus mo dhícheall an Ghaeilge agus an Béarla a chur ar an leibhéal céanna. Nuair a bhíonn vótaí i gceist, bainim úsáid as an nGaeilge i gcónaí. Déanaim é sin go pearsanta ach, gan dabht, tá rud éigin eile ar leibhéal eile ag teastail ón gcóras.”
One suggestion she makes to promote the use of the Irish language in the Dáil is that An Taoiseach should receive a question as Gaeilge each week.
“Is dócha go ndéanfadh sé difríocht mór dá mba rud é go raibh ceist as Gaeilge gach seachtain ag an Taoiseach. Bíonn ceisteanna aige chuile lá as Béarla, bheadh sé iontach í a úsáid uair amháin sa tseachtain. Thaispeánfadh sin do mhuintir na tíre go bhfuil an Ghaeilge tábhachtach, ní amháin mar theanga, ach mar theanga chumarsáide, gur féidir cumarsáid a dhéanamh sa 21ú haois leis an teanga faoi ábhair thábhachtacha – cúrsaí tithíochta, sláinte, Breatimeachta agus a leithéid as Gaeilge chun é a chur in iúl gur féidir linn.”
Connolly outlines three steps for assisting Gaeltacht areas, suggesting: “I dtús báire, caithimid aitheantas a thabhairt don ghéarchéim atá ar siúl sna Gaeltachtaí. Bhí sé mar phribhléid agamsa a bheith i mo chathaoirleach ar an gComhchoiste Gaeilge ó 2016 ar aghaidh, anois táim i mo ghnáthbhall de. Bhí fear againn ina chléireach a raibh croí mór aige do mhuintir na nGaeltachtaí. Thaistil muid timpeall na tíre go dtí gach Gaeltacht agus an téama ceannann céanna ag teacht aníos arís agus arís: níl carthanacht uathu in aon chor, ach tacaíocht do na daoine ar an dtalamh a bhfuil smaointe iontacha acu agus níl a dhóthain tacaíochta ag teacht ón rialtas, is cuma cé acu a bhí sa rialtas. Is dócha go bhfuil cur i gcéill i gceist cuid mhór den am agus meon don charthanacht in ionad an cheist a chur ‘cén chaoi is féidir linn na Gaeltachtaí a neartú mar fhoinse don Ghaeilge?’. Sin foinse na Gaeilge agus tá an líonra cainteoirí ag laghdú an t-am ar fad. Bhí mise ag iarraidh ar Aire éigin, níl mé chun é a ainmniú, aitheantas a thabhairt don ghéarchéim. Ní féidir fadhb a réiteach gan í a aithint. Sin céim a haon. Céim a dó ná obair a dhéanamh leis na daoine ar an dtalamh. Uimhir a trí: níos mó maoinithe a thabhairt d’Údarás na Gaeltachta. Tá Údarás na Gaeltachta cosúil le Enterprise Ireland nó an IDA ach tá níos mó dualgas orthu an Gaelphobal a chothú agus an Ghaeilge a chothú freisin. Tá níos mó dualgas orthu agus níos lú airgid acu.”
Criticising the prevalence of spin in Irish politics, the Leas-Cheann Comhairle asserts that politicians must aspire to honesty and integrity. “I think we all make mistakes and I have no problem with mistakes. I make mistakes. But we have to acknowledge and learn from them. No politician can be perfect, and I think we need to convey that to the public.
“Sometimes I have a sense of frustration, as a TD, that we’re not talking enough about substantive matters in relation to health, housing or climate change for instance. We should be working to recognise the problems and identify solutions. I’m allergic to spin. I have no time for it,” she remarks.
Meanwhile, paying tribute to her staff, without whom “I couldn’t do it otherwise”, Connolly is confident that she will rise to the challenge of chairing the Dáil in a fair and impartial manner, while keeping deputies within their time. “I’m optimistic by nature but I’m also pragmatic. I remind myself every day that this is a privilege and seek to undertake the role to the best of my ability,” she concludes.
A native of Galway city (originally from Shantalla before moving to the Claddagh), Leas-Cheann Comhairle Catherine Connolly TD first entered politics in 1999 when she was elected to Galway City Council for the Labour Party. In 2004, she became Mayor of Galway before leaving Labour in 2006. After contesting the 2007 and 2011 general elections, and serving a total of 17 years as a councillor, Connolly was successfully elected to the Dáil as an independent TD for Galway West in 2016, subsequently serving on the Public Accounts Committee which she regards as “the greatest education I ever had”. Retaining her seat in February 2020, she was then elected as Leas-Cheann Comhairle in July 2020.
Prior to her entry into politics, Connolly worked as a clinical psychologist with the Western Health Board in Ballinasloe, Galway city and in Connemara before studying law and becoming a practicing barrister, mostly in family law.