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March 30, 2017
Should a dress code be introduced in the Dáil Chamber?

As the Committee on Procedure and Privilege considers the introduction of a dress code for TDs in the Dáil Chamber, our Account Advisor, Tony Heffernan, who worked in the Dáil for almost 30 years, expresses some personal views on the issues involved.

The Dáil Committee on Procedure and Privilege is reported to be considering the introduction of a dress code for TDs while in the Dáil Chamber. The real issue here is not whether a dress code is a good idea, but how it is to be enforced if introduced.

A survey of international practice conducted on behalf of the Committee showed that 24 of 40 parliaments examined had some sort of dress code. While the other 16 had no specific regulations, custom and practice was that members were expected to dress formally and neatly.

Opinion polls in this country have generally shown that a majority of voters expect a minimum standard of dress. A recent public poll conducted by TheJournal.ie, showed that 61% supported the introduction of a dress code (suit and tie for men, business skirt or formal trousers and blazers for women); 24% felt ‘smart casual’ (undefined) should be permitted, but only 14% said that members should be allowed to wear what they liked.

Attitudes to dress have, of course, changed over the years. We have come a long way since the 1930’s when presenters reading the news on BBC radio were expected to wear dinner suits. In this country government ministers attending Presidential inaugurations up to the 1970’s were expected to wear formal morning suits. And at one time, it would have been normal for female TDs to wear hats in the Chamber.

Following his election in 1982, Tony Gregory first appeared in the Dáil Chamber without a tie and it created something of a sensation. Nowadays a TD wearing a jacket and shirt with no tie, would be regarded as perfectly acceptable. The Leinster House authorities have always had a particularly conservative approach. For example, as recently as the 1990’s, kitchen staff were told that they could not use the main entrance on their way to work if they were wearing jeans and were required to use a rear entrance.

The real change in attitudes to dress came in recent years with the election of a number of new Deputies from smaller left-wing parties (and some Independents) who eschewed any formal dress and wore t-shirts or loose shirts over jeans. Some of these say that they are only reflecting the dress sense of their young working class constituents, but the evidence of my eyes suggest that young working class males (certainly on any formal occasions) are more likely to take Conor McGregor and his natty three piece suits as their role model rather than Richard Boyd Barrett or Paul Murphy. It is also worth noting that the long serving Socialist Party TD, Joe Higgins, always dressed conservatively, usually wearing a jacket, shirt and tie.

People generally do have an expectation that those in particular roles will dress appropriately. Nobody would expect the Chief Justice to preside in the Supreme Court wearing an AC/DC t-shirt. Would people take the news seriously if Brian Dobson was wearing a baseball cap and a Glasgow Celtic football shirt? And would passengers be happy to see the pilot of their airline enter the cockpit dressed like a biker?

The other area of difficulty is whether or not TDs should be permitted to wear items of clothing carrying political slogans. The Dáil has traditionally prohibited the wearing of political emblems in the Chamber and certainly as recently as the last ten years TDs were asked to remove poppies around Remembrance Day. The issue was highlighted in recently by the coordinated decision of some TDs to wear tee-shirts promoting entirely commendable objectives, such as the repeal of the Eight Amendment. But if these are permitted where is the line to be drawn? Can we have TDs bearing slogans saying ‘bring back hanging’, ‘no abortion here’, or ‘legalise heroin’? And why not ‘Up the Dubs’ or ‘Kerry for the holidays’?

Whatever about dress standards, there is a strong case for the continuation of the ban on political emblems and slogans. Arguments should be won and lost on the basis of argument rather in a battle of the t-shirts, particularly with recent Dáil reforms giving TDs more speaking opportunities than ever before.

The real problem with any dress code is how it is to be enforced. Suspending TDs who refuse to comply would hardly be fair on their constituents. It is unlikely that any move to dock pay would be legal. In addition most of those who dress outside ‘the norms’ are TDs who regard themselves as being ‘outside of the establishment’ and would probably welcome any moves against them as more evidence of attempts by ‘the establishment’ to do them down.

The best option for the Committee may simply be to set out in general terms a dress code for both male and female TDs, that is not over formal or restrictive, is appropriate for members of our national parliament, but is implemented on a voluntary basis without any penalty or sanction for non-compliance.

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