Credit: House of Commons via Flickr

UK MP denied chance to speak…. For not wearing a suit

Can you imagine if the Ceann Comhairle tried this stunt with some of the Dáil’s tracksuit brigade?

Tory MP Jonathan Gullis is the victim here. But was he done in…. in the wrong? The rules of the House of Commons are clear on the subject of dress codes. Here’s what they say:

As with the language you use, the way in which you dress should also demonstrate respect for the House and for its central position in the life of the nation. There is no exact dress code: usual business dress is suggested as a guide. Jeans, T-shirts, sandals and trainers are not appropriate. It is no longer a requirement for men to wear a tie, but jackets should be worn.

A good lawyer could probably have fun with that. In this case, it’s not obviously clear that he was wearing something expressly listed as “not appropriate” – jeans, t-shirts, sandals, and trainers. Unless mine eyes deceive me, he was wearing quite a nice jumper over a shirt.

So, the most he’s guilty of is not wearing a jacket. But the rules on that are less stringent: Jackets should be worn, they say. “Should” is not the same as “Shall”, or “must”.

By the letter of the law, the Deputy Speaker should have allowed him to speak. But she’s a traditionalist, is Dame Eleanor Laing, and at the end of the day, the Chair’s word, more than the actual law, is law.

And now for my own, controversial, views: She’s absolutely right.

As the dress code says, members of parliament should demonstrate respect for the house and its central position in the life of the nation. That’s not just true of the House of Commons – it should be true of the Dáil as well.

You might think that’s quite a stuffy view – telling people to wear suits. But it’s really not. Think of all the places that you would commonly wear a suit, or the female equivalent: They’re places where you want to demonstrate respect for the people whose company you are in. You’d wear a suit, for example, to a wedding. Or to a first communion. Or to court, if you’re smart.

It’s incredibly patronising to suggest, as some do, that it’s somehow too much to ask certain TDs, because of their background, to dress appropriately and with respect. When those TDs turn up in t-shirts and say that they dress that way because it’s how the people they represent dress, then they’re usually lying. It’s the way the people they represent dress when they’re at home watching TV – it’s not how they dress when they’re attending a family wedding, or a family funeral. Their constituents are just as capable of dressing respectfully as anybody else.

In fact, the whole appeal and point of these guys wearing casual clothes in the chamber is, in large part, to show disrespect. When you stand up to ask the Taoiseach a question, dressed in a T-shirt and sporting political badges, the whole point of the exercise is to brand yourself as some sort of non-conformist rebel who doesn’t respect the traditions of the house.

At least in the case of Gullis, it was, presumably, an embarrassing oversight. In the case of some of Ireland’s scruffier TDs, it’s a deliberate show of disrespect.

It’s not the most important issue in the world, or anything. But we are always told, after all, that politicians are leaders and role models.

And of course, the argument that’s always made is that young people turn on the TV and, if they see a Dáil full of people in suits, they’ll turn it off again. To which the correct answer is: Good.

The Dáil is not supposed to be, necessarily, entertaining, or even relevant. What it’s supposed to do is command respect. If it’s a lot of boring men and women in suits making deliberative decisions about economic policy, then no, that’s not likely to capture the attention or the admiration of a transition year student. But it might send at least a subtle message about the nature of the professional world, and how to dress if you want to be a professional.

The UK is no less a democracy than Ireland is because it imposes a dress code in the House of Commons. Indeed, the Commons is often vastly more entertaining than the Dáil, because the debates are rowdier, and people actually disagree on major issues, which doesn’t happen so much in Ireland.

The Government should introduce a similar dress code for Leinster House. The usual suspects would howl their little heads off, but you might have a sneaking suspicion, you know, that the public wouldn’t be as sympathetic as some of the t-shirt wearers might think.


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