Does the Dáil need a dress code?

Richard Boyd Barrett expressed disbelief that a Dáil committee would waste time on a "trivial and irrelevant matter"

Does the Dáil need a dress code?

Picture by: NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images

It may be a relatively trivial matter in the general scheme of things, but the attire of politicians has frequently proven to be a contentious issue.

An Oireachtas committee is today considering whether or not the Dáil should adopt a dress code.

At the moment, Leinster House simply state that TDs should dress in a way that reflects the dignity of the House.

According to the Irish Times, the Dáil’s Committee on Procedures is considering a report on standards in 40 other parliaments around the world.

Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó’Fearghaíl is said to have requested the report after a 'number of complaints regarding members' attire'.

The issue of an Oireachtas dress code was previously discussed in 2011, but nothing was ever implemented.

The latest report and debate comes after some politicians' clothing choices managed to generate media headlines.

In September, for example, the six Solidarity (then Anti Austerity Alliance) - People Before Profit TDs wore 'Repeal' t-shirts to show their support for repealing the 8th Amendment.

Several TDs in the Dáil generally dress casually, in contrast to more traditional 'business wear' favoured by most others.

A number of TD are particularly well-known for their distinctive clothing - whether that's Mick Wallace's pink shirts or Michael Healy-Rae's iconic flat cap.

Mick Wallace. Image: RollingNews.ie

"A trivial and irrelevant matter"

On the Pat Kenny Show this morning, People Before Profit's Richard Boyd Barrett said it was 'unbelievable' that a parliamentary committee would waste its time and resources on "such a trivial and irrelevant matter that makes not a whit of difference to the serious issues that people in this country face".

He argued: "This is the political establishment revealing its quite authoritarian colours, and a determination I think to close down a new opposition in the parliament that has been highlighting issues - as we did on a couple of occasions by wearing symbols supporting Tesco workers, or symbols supporting the campaign for Repeal the 8th.

"I think the parliament would be a poorer place if it didn't reflect the diversity of issues and opinions of some of the new forces in the Dáil... that don't feel the need to wear a particular type of uniform."

He added: "What should be a consideration, and how people should be judged, is are they doing what they were elected to do? [...] To my mind the most disrespectful thing in parliament is ministers who refuse to answer direct questions - that to me is far more disrespectful than somebody wearing a pink t-shirt, or wearing a pair of jeans."

Deputy Boyd Barrett's PBP colleague Bríd Smith also slammed the report in a statement this morning.

She said: "This is at best a distraction and at worst an insult to those in emergency accommodation or on hospital waiting lists. We do not need a dress code for TDs, we need a code that will force them to deliver on their election promises and deal with real issues."

Solidarity - PBP TDs wearing Repeal t-shirts in the Dáil last September. Image: Oireachtas TV

"Don't wear anything that's louder than you are"

A dress code is certainly not an idea without its supporters: a Herald/Millward Brown poll in February 2016 - carried out in Dublin West and Dublin Bay South - showed that 57% of respondents wanted a dress code introduced in Leinster House.

But what are the benefits for politicians paying extra attention to their appearance?

Terry Prone of the Communications Clinic told Pat Kenny that some young TDs have looked for her firm's help when trying to choose 'correct' clothes for the Dáil.

She observed: "What we're constantly saying is something desperately simple: don't wear anything that's louder than you are. Don't wear anything that is not congruent with what you stand for - which I would figure is a fairly authentic stance."

Frances Jones, image consultant with Image Matters, has also advised TDs.

"On the one side, you might argue there are so many other huge issues to be dealt with in the Dáil," she told Newstalk.com. "But on the other hand, you have the argument that these are our national representatives - they represent our country, they represent us in Europe, they represent us around the world."

She suggested that while making judgements based on clothing could be seen as fickle, "that's the world we live in - we live in a highly visual world."

Frances said: "You'll often get public representatives saying 'I was elected looking like this', and they go on their reputation and the work they've done in their constituencies. And that's a fair enough argument, but I think when you get to national and international level, there has to be a minimum standard for sure."

She also observed that even though there has been a trend towards more casual dress, grooming remains important.

"That means hair, make-up for women, shaving for men, clean hands, clean clothes, clean shoes," she noted. "All of those bits and pieces that you would imagine we take for granted, but that's not always the case."

'Dressing with dignity'

While traditional business wear is often associated with the long-established parties, the parties themselves do not necessarily explicitly dictate rules.

File photo of the current Fine Gael / Independent Cabinet

A Fine Gael spokesperson, for example, said there's no party policy on a dress code, and it would be a matter for individual TDs or ministers if they wanted to consult anybody in relation to image or attire.

A spokesperson for Labour, meanwhile, said: "The Labour Party has never had a need to issue any internal guidelines on this - Labour TDs and Senators have always dressed with regard to the dignity of the chambers."

Ultimately, while many would argue in favour of neat dress and presentation, the idea of a dress code remains divisive. Frances Jones suggests that a formal code brings its own problems.

She argued: "It's all very well introducing a code, but then you have to go and try and enforce it, and enforce it on a consistent basis.

"I just think it's a very, very tricky area to try and force people. What are you going to do - police their wardrobes?"