CLARE Independent TD, Michael McNamara has said he doesn’t expect the new Covid-19 Dáil committee, of which be became chairperson this week, to be a star chamber or to make a political football of public health guidelines.
Responding to questions from The Clare Champion this week, Deputy McNamara said he expected the high-profile committee to treat witnesses, who will include Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Dr Tony Holohan, with respect and to focus on matters of public interest and information.
The committee, which is the only one sitting currently, is made up of four members each from Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Sinn Féin, with one seat each for other parties and Independent groups. On Tuesday, it elected Deputy McNamara, by lunchtime, to be its chair, before a longer-than-expected private session which continued into the late afternoon. For reasons of social distancing and to ensure the committee has legal privilege, the meeting took place in the Dáil chamber, with the Scariff-based TD taking the seat normally occupied by the Ceann Comhairle.
Deputy McNamara defeated Sinn Féin nominee David Cullinane for the position of chair, but denied national media speculation that there was a conspiracy against that party. “There was a general feeling that the role should be filled by a member of one of the smaller groupings, and within that, there was a smaller number with the requisite experience,” he said. “The extent of the media interest in this committee highlights the fact that everything else is at a standstill.”
Deputy McNamara said that discussions focused on whether it was best to begin public sessions by hearing first from medical or political sources, with members opting to call Dr Holohan next Tuesday.
“The big concerns we want to look at are the capacity for Covid-19 testing and contact tracing,” Deputy McNamara said. “Easing restrictions depends on those things. We are also looking into the situation in settings like nursing homes, mental health facilities and Direct Provision centres; as well as the re-opening of the economy.”
When asked about the tone of the committee sessions, Deputy McNamara said there were a number of considerations: “Members must remain respectful, but questions need to be asked on behalf of the public. I don’t see a public appetite for any political points scoring or anything of that nature. We are also mindful of the [Angela] Kerins judgement, which found that a committee had acted outside its remit.”
Deputy McNamara also noted that it would be his role, as chair, to moderate committee sessions and to ensure witnesses were treated appropriately: “I will be expecting people to behave in a collegial manner in the course of conducting business. This is one of the first opportunities to elicit information to guide people in their daily lives. Covid-19 has been all-pervasive and is having a huge impact on people’s lives and livelihoods. People are looking for some semblance of normality.”
The professional barrister added that one of his own areas of interest as part of the committee was the impact on the hospitality sector and tourism. “Those sectors are major employers, obviously in Clare, and across the country. There’s the question of how those sectors can re-open and also about whether people, who are under enormous stress and difficulties because of the lock-down, will be able to access them for recreation or for a break at any stage.”
Chief Medical Officer, Dr Tony Holohan, will be asked to be the first witness to come before the committee on Covid-19 next Tuesday.