Miriam Lord: Leo outflanks FF with diversionary move in Cork

Cabinet parks tanks on Micheál Martin’s lawn as party ardfheis opens in Dublin

The Cabinet discussed Brexit and the health service at its meeting in UCC on Friday. Photograph: Daragh McSweeney/Provision

The Cabinet discussed Brexit and the health service at its meeting in UCC on Friday. Photograph: Daragh McSweeney/Provision

 

In what should not be misinterpreted as an act of blatant provocation, Leo Varadkar and his troops rolled into Cork at the crack of dawn yesterday and parked their tanks on Micheál Martin’s lawn.

They executed their daring swoop when the Fianna Fáil leader was in Dublin on manoeuvres and fully occupied with the opening day of his party’s ardfheis.

But as the Soldiers of Destiny prepared their evening assault on the weekend news agenda, their political rivals were already mounting a diversionary tactic in the southern capital.

Some may see this as a brazenly opportunistic effort by the cheeky new Varadkar regime to capture a major chunk of national headlines from Fianna Fáil during its big-ticket event.

Perish the thought.

Although the Cork Chamber of Commerce – whose venerable members valiantly mustered in strength for breakfast with Leo in Parc Ui Chaoimh – didn’t appear to have that much advance notice of the Taoiseach’s visit. In his speech, Chamber president Bill O’Connell thanked staff at the stadium “for hosting us again” particularly as they wouldn’t have expected “we’d be back so quickly after being here four weeks ago”.

Record-breaking attendance

Bonus guest Leo proved to be a great draw, attracting a record-breaking breakfast meeting attendance of more than 450 members. The Taoiseach didn’t arrive empty-handed either, announcing that the long-awaited M20 motorway between Limerick and Cork had been given the green light.

It was most generous of Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe to hold back that little nugget from his budget statement earlier in the week. The lack of a high-speed road link between the two cities has been a massive bone of contention in the region for years, so Leo’s good news was very well received.

Hopefully it didn’t take too much of the shine from Fianna Fáil’s big event.

After his visit to the impressively revamped Parc Ui Chaoimh, he headed across the city to University College Cork for a special Cabinet meeting. It seems the Government wants to get out and about more so that people all around the country can feel part of the political process.

With this in mind, it might have been a good idea for the visitors to show their faces a bit more among the general citizenry.

Apart from Leo’s early foray to meet the business community – and to make that big splash in the local media with his major motorway announcement, he may as well have stayed in Dublin.

“Who’s in there? What are all the police and barriers for?” asked a student as she surveyed the forest of fluorescent jackets .

“It’s the Government – the entire Cabinet is down for a meeting.”

“So why are they hiding?”

Two topics

Ministers scuttled in dribs and drabs across the quadrangle and in across the Stone Hall for their gathering. Two topics were up for discussion: Brexit (in the morning) and the health service (in the afternoon).

The Taoiseach, with a five-strong Garda motorcycle escort, met the college president, Prof Patrick O’Shea, before holding a pre-Cabinet press briefing among the books and busts in the staff common room. The two men walked along a path in front of the creeper-clad building before Leo, clearly growing into the job, turned to the face the photographers, dispensed a sedate, statesmanlike wave and disappeared through the door.

The university, just like the Government, has launched a long-term strategy: UCC 2017-2022, along with slogans to go with it such as “Shared ambition” and “Independent thinking”. They worked perfectly as a backdrop for the briefing, when the Taoiseach was joined by Ministers Simon Coveney (the local kingpin), Simon Harris and Katherine Zappone.

It’s at times like this you miss Enda. He would have been down to the English Market like a shot, fondling drisheen and kissing babies over the crubeens

Once inside, there was no way out. The Cabinet would be working right through lunch, we were told, before wrapping up at teatime as Leo had to dash up to Derry.

It’s at times like this you miss Enda.

He would have been down to the English Market like a shot, fondling drisheen and freshly-caught gurnet and kissing babies over the crubeens.

The first question for the Taoiseach addressed Brendan Howlin’s complaint to the Standards in Public Office Commission about his new strategic communications unit, which has been getting lots of publicity since it was allocated €5 million in the budget.

“It’s really just party-political point-scoring, to be honest, and I think everyone will see it for what it is.”

(We’re not sure if he meant the point-scoring or the unit.)

Let us have no more talk of spin.

“My focus is on Brexit,” said Leo, firmly.

It seems Leo is on a mission to beat the spin – not by cutting down on it, but by delivering on it. That’s a tough challenge

And yet, he couldn’t resist bringing up the subject while addressing the Chamber of Commerce on his Government’s plans.

Already, the opening of new Irish embassies and missions abroad is “tangible evidence” that the policy he announced in Toronto to double Ireland’s global footprint was being implemented.

Then he added: “I do, of course, recall the time when I made that speech, some of my critics said it was ‘just spin’. So I’d hope the fact that we’ve seen that announcement backed by real decisions and funding indicates something that the Government is very serious about.”

It seems Leo is on a mission to beat the spin – not by cutting down on it, but by delivering on it. That’s a tough challenge.

Energy and enthusiasm

But there is no denying that there is a real sense of energy and enthusiasm from Varadkar and, in particular, the younger members of his Cabinet.

Given that Fine Gael and its Independent bedfellows are in power thanks to a confidence-and-supply agreement with Fianna Fáil, it must have come as a huge disappointment to the Cabinet to learn that the Fianna Fáil leader, a stalwart son of Cork, was not in town to receive them. However, the party’s finance spokesman Michael McGrath, who also represents the same constituency, led a small contingent of colleagues to the breakfast, all of them smiling like their lives depended on it as political rival Leo dispensed the good news.

Adopting a flattery-will-get-you-everywhere approach, Leo praised former Fianna Fáil taoiseach and legendary son of Cork Jack Lynch, before extolling the virtues of Cork hurling and the magnificence of the county’s camogie team.

But, at 25 minutes long, his leaden speech had people snoring into their rashers.

The little doors in the panelling must have been tantalising for Ministers who contemplated fleeing after the second hour of Coveney on Brexit

The last time the Cabinet met in Cork was back in 2005, when an ambitious young Fianna Fáil minister by the name of Micheál Martin prevailed upon taoiseach Bertie Ahern to take a trip Leeside to mark the city’s year as European Capital of Culture.

This time, it was Minister Simon Coveney wot did it. Anything Micheál can do. . .

In an ancient room off the quadrangle, the Ministers sat around a huge old table under a high, vaulted ceiling. There was a lectern at one end and a dreaded slide projector at the other. Those little arch doors in the oak panelling along one side must have presented a tantalising temptation for Ministers who contemplated fleeing after the second hour of Coveney on Brexit.

As part of his charm offensive earlier, the Taoiseach brought up the vexed question of flooding, reaffirming the Government’s commitment to implementing a major flood-relief scheme for the city.

With Hurricane Ophelia set to hit next week, he’ll be hoping he doesn’t have to pay another unexpected visit to Cork.

When Micheál Martin will be more than happy to let him paddle his own canoe.