Miriam Lord: When Enda’s away the starlets will play

With the Taoiseach up in the air, Leo Varadkar was taxiing into position

Fine Gael contender: Leo Varadkar, soon to be on the hustings, was putting himself about. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Fine Gael contender: Leo Varadkar, soon to be on the hustings, was putting himself about. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

The Taoiseach was gone. Up in the air on the way to Canada. Richard Bruton stood in for him at Leaders’ Questions while a determined understudy occupied his spot outside Government Buildings and held forth to the press.

Enda’s well-worn wheels were hardly up before Leo Varadkar pushed away from the ministerial offices and began taxiing towards the Merrion Street steps of destiny. Checking them out on the fly.

Back in the Dáil, Bruton was receiving a polite reception from a small crowd only mildly bothered by the organ grinder’s absence. This was because they know that Enda is going to be replaced very soon and that a new arm will be cranking the handle and pumping out the power.

Judging by the poor attendance and leaden atmosphere in the chamber, it won’t be Richard. The Minister for Education once had serious designs on the leadership of Fine Gael, but any expression of intent from him now would be a tactical move to cement his place in the Cabinet. Had it been one of the serious understudies in the hot seat yesterday afternoon – Varadkar or Simon Coveney – the exchanges would have had a much sharper edge.

Leaders’ Questions meandered along, with serious issues raised and sincere undertakings by the Minister to raise them with the person in charge

So Leaders’ Questions meandered along, with serious issues raised and sincere undertakings by the Minister to raise them with the person in charge.

The Fianna Fáil leader talked about Shane O’Farrell, a law student who was killed in a hit and run in 2011, and the many worrying questions about the Garda’s handling of the case. Micheál Martin called for a public inquiry because repeated attempts by the young man’s parents to get satisfactory explanations had not been given a fair response. The case revealed “shocking malpractice and dysfunction within our criminal-justice system at all levels”, he said.

The details are hard to believe, and it’s easy to understand why Shane’s parents, Lucia and Jim, have been tireless in their battle to get to the facts.

Richard Burton expressed his heartfelt sympathy. Unfortunately, he couldn’t say anything about an inquiry, because Justice isn’t his bag. But he promised to pass on Martin’s concerns to Frances Fitzgerald.

He said the same to the Labour leader, Brendan Howlin, who was wondering what had happened to all the talk about “root and branch” investigations and promises of sweeping reform in An Garda Síochána. It’s been more than a month since the last scandal, and longer still since the first declarations of action, he pointed out, but “we’ve still to see any concrete results”.

Richard said that Frances was doing a great job and that the Government has put a high priority on starting as it means to go on

Richard said that Frances was doing a great job and that the Government has put a high priority on starting as it means to go on. Not only that, but the Dáil had held wide-ranging debates about policing, which was a great help.

Howlin repeated that he hasn’t heard anything of note on the Garda front since the Minister promised to do the divil, and all in record time.

Bruton repeated that it’s crucial for the Minister for Justice to take her time to ensure that things are done properly. And for the Government, too: “It’s very important that we take the time to get it right.”

That’s what Enda has been saying, too. For months and months.

Gerry Adams brought up Brexit and special status for Northern Ireland, and Richard talked at length about Brexit and the great work being done by the Taoiseach and the Irish team on our behalf. Just the way the Taoiseach would have done, but with more modesty.

The Sinn Féin leader took mild umbrage with the Minister’s reply. With Enda away there was no point.

Ruth Coppinger of Solidarity said it out straight when she rose to ask about the lack of Government comment on the Citizens’ Assembly’s recommendations about legislating for abortion. “I obviously would prefer if it was the Taoiseach who was answering today,” she remarked to his stand-in. “No offence.”

The mild-mannered Minister smiled. None taken.

With the main man missing, and Richard outdoing himself with reasonableness, the exchanges fizzled out

She had wanted to ask for his views on the outcome of the assembly’s deliberations, reached after weeks of discussion and questions, expert contributions, information sessions, and personal testimonies from both sides of the argument. It wasn’t to be. With the main man missing, and Richard outdoing himself with reasonableness, the exchanges fizzled out.

Across the way from Leinster House there was a different vibe. Leo, soon to be out on the hustings, contesting the Fine Gael leadership, was putting himself about in front of Government Buildings. When Enda’s away the starlets will play, it seemed.

He was briefing the press on the latest unemployment figures. “I’m really delighted” was his verdict on them. In fact he thinks he’ll have to reset all his department’s figures, because they’ve hit so many of their targets in the economic- and job-growth area. Not that he was blowing his own trumpet or anything.

The reporters had to ask about the leadership contest, which is due to start any week. The only way Leo and Simon could be more prepared for the race would be if they were to wear singlets, running shorts and spikes.

Leo brushed aside questions about who he might put in his cabinet. For now

Leo brushed aside questions about who he might put in his cabinet. For now.

“I’m not going there.”

Yet.

“That’s something I’m not giving much consideration at this stage.”

As far as he’s concerned it’s up to the Taoiseach to choose his time of departure. “I’ve actually never set a deadline,” Leo declared.

He is looking forward to the contest. Mad to get started around the country and into the studios for TV debates.

Across in Kildare Street Richard Bruton was wrapping up Leaders’ Questions. His ears must have been burning, because Leo was taking about him, describing him as “a phenomenally capable politician”.

Which is another way of dangling a cabinet seat under somebody’s nose in return for leadership support.

And Enda Kenny is having a lovely time in Canada.