'Howya Mary. I see the nephew took the medical card off you',


Michael Ring's Budget mischief; Levying the Centenarian Bounty; Dáil pensioners losing medical cards; Seanad's dress-down Friday; Maurice Hickey's brother on the ballot sheet; saving Dublin Bay; Healy-Rae's satellite link-up; Coughlan's clarity

THE INCORRIGIBLE Michael Ring was out to cause mischief in Leinster House on Budget night. The Fine Gael TD for Mayo was seen in the vicinity of the restaurant, gleefully daring colleagues to approach the redoubtable Mary O'Rourke and make a particular comment to her. In fact, Michael was offering $100 to anyone brave enough to accept the challenge.

He put his proposition to Labour's Kathleen Lynch, who fled the scene - to borrow a phrase used by her party leader to describe Government Ministers' response to the medical card fiasco - quicker than a frightened fox running from a forest fire.

Pat Rabbitte similarly refused, and then turned the tables on deputy Ring. He offered him €1,000 to carry out the dare.

Michael chickened out.

Here's what they were all afraid to say to Mammy O'Rourke: "Howya, Mary. I see the nephew took the medical card off you today."

Not on your Nellie

One doesn't wish to be a scaremonger, but a terrible thought has just occurred.

Nellie, a worried pensioner, hears that she will not be losing her free medical card. It's been a tight squeeze - another few bob and she would have lost it. But never mind. The news is good and her health is good and she's going to have a big huge party to celebrate and a bottle of stout.

Even the President is happy for Nellie. Mrs McAleese sends a lovely letter, accompanied by cheque for €2,540. It's Nellie's Centenarian Bounty.

Then the Government gets in touch, demanding its 1 per cent cut for Lenihan's Levy. Furthermore, it'll be taking back her medical card as she has now exceeded the threshold. Nellie receives the news just as she is blowing out the candles. The shock is too much. She goes right off her stout. It could have been worse. That sort of news could have put her in an early grave.

Knife of Brian

Spare a thought for the forlorn five, those deputies who have passed the three score and 10 mark, only to see their medical cards cruelly snatched from their palsied fingers by the Knife of Brian.

If it wasn't for their meagre Dáil salaries, they would be near destitute. It is particularly hard on those former office holders, who are drawing small ministerial pensions - worth only tens of thousands - but are still forced to augment their income by putting in a few hours a week in Leinster House. Now they'll all be hit with the 2 per cent levy as well.

It's not right.

Jackie's double-whammy

Three former Fianna Fáil ministers have lost their medical cards: Rory O'Hanlon, Michael Woods and Mary O'Rourke. Also hit is Fine Gael's PJ Sheehan and Independent deputy Jackie Healy-Rae.

The veteran from Kerry South has suffered a double-whammy, as his cap will also lose all its benefits. Jackie's cap is older than its wearer, appears to be in poor health and is currently in receipt of a small allowance from the Heritage Council under their Wildlife Grants Scheme.

Michael's melodies

Let us return to one of the highest-earning Dáil pensioners. Michael Woods was spotted in Leinster House on Wednesday in the company of another illustrious man of advancing years - none other than Sonny Knowles himself.

It is not known why the self-proclaimed "Mick Jagger for the Grannys" was visiting. Perhaps Sonny was tutoring deputy Woods in advance of a shock recall to the ministerial ranks. Or maybe Biffo had sent for him to calm the pensioners if they turn nasty.

During the height of Thursday's Dáil ructions over the medical cards, more than one Opposition deputy was heard to cry "bring back Michael Woods!"

One of the highlights of Woodsie's very long ministerial career happened when he was minister for education, and he had to face down a hotel full of angry secondary school teachers at their annual conference in Galway. After he addressed the hostile teachers, he left the room via a backdoor and went up to his press conference by means of the emergency stairs. But the teachers tracked him down and began howling outside the door.

Was Woodsie fazed? Not in the least. After he had spoken to the hacks, he bustled outside and sang to the slack-jawed múinteoiri, so horrified they were rendered speechless. The Minister sang two choruses of Elvis Presley's Wooden Heartand then made good his escape.

Perhaps Biffo's Government, with hostile grannies howling at the door, have sent for Woodsie. This would explain the presence of Michael's fellow crooner, Sonny.

When the pensioners arrive to protest at the gates of Leinster House on Wednesday, they could well be greeted by Woodsie singing Sonny's tune: "I'll take care of your cares for you . . ." In which case, he'll be lynched.

Sartorial Seanad

Just because Leinster House has loosened its stays and started to allow the great unwashed trample through its corridors on all sorts of theme nights and fun weekends, it doesn't mean standards have slipped.

Labour Senator Dominic Hannigan discovered this yesterday when attending the special sitting of the Seanad on the bank guarantee. He was approached outside the chamber by the Captain of the Guard, who wanted a discreet word.

The handsome senator may have been wearing a very nice blue linen suit and a crisp cotton button-down shirt, but he wasn't wearing a tie. The Captain drew this abomination to Dominic's attention and suggested a tie could be made available to him if he wished.

"I'm okay for today," said the suitably chastened Senator from Meath. He was a bit taken aback by the approach.

"We don't normally sit on Friday. I always dress down on a Friday and will continue to do so," he said. "As for having to wear a tie, I think that should be up to the individual. I notice quite a few deputies in the Dáil don't bother with a tie.

The main thing, in my view, is to look smart," said the always immaculate Senator.

Is there one rule for Dáil deputies and another one for Senators? What century are we in again?

Breakfast roll ballot

What would Cllr Maurice "tis for the good of the parish" Hickey make of the medical cards debacle? He would probably be sick and heart-sore by it all, taking fierce abuse from the pensioners of Killdicken, Honetyne and Glengooley this weekend.

Now, Cllr Hickey's brother is running for election. Or to be precise, the brother of actor and comedian Pat Shortt, aka Cllr Maurice Hickey, is running for election.

Labour head office, ever alert to the possibility of publicity, has pointed this out to us.

Tom Shortt, who says he's been involved in politics since Jim Kemmy's time, is standing for the party on the north side of Limerick in next year's local elections.

A teacher in Scoil Carmel girls' secondary school in the city, Shortt decided to run for office after he became involved in a successful campaign to build a skate park for local children.

He's already begun canvassing, and says people are telling him they know his brother, Cllr Maurice.

So has this pillar of Killdicken passed on any of his wisdom and animal cunning to ingénue Tom? "Always have the breakfast roll before heading off on the canvass and look after the nuns."

As the campaign intensifies, Tom is hoping the legendary Maurice Hickey will join him on a few walkabouts. (After he's cleared up that bit of confusion about the missing GAA money in Glengooley.)

Dublin Bay Watch

The theme for today is feisty pensioners, so here's another one for you.

Many people visiting Dollymount Strand last Saturday will have noticed an elderly gentleman standing beside the wooden bridge across the sea, holding up a big placard.

Not only was he doing that, he was also supplying an answer to the question: Whatever happened to Seán D "Dublin Bay" Loftus? For there he was, still campaigning after all these years. He's 81 in November, and as ever, battling to preserve Dublin Bay for the city, its residents and the people of Ireland. "No to Infill" said the placard. Birdwatchers were mobbing him with their good wishes.

He asked us to mention that Dublin Bay Watch is holding a public meeting in Clontarf tomorrow to inform people about the latest application by Dublin Port Company to infill and develop over 95 acres of the bay. It's the company's third application since 1999, but this one involves a direct application to An Bord Pleanála, which will result in a straight approval or rejection.

"You have to do something, the closing date for submissions to the board is coming up." he pleaded. "You're a neighbour and you have column." Fair enough, Seán. It's at 3pm in Belgrove Girls' School, Seafield Road.

Actually, Seán D's brief time as a Dáil deputy was recalled around Leinster House yesterday, when opposition to the withdrawal of universal medical cards for the over-70s reached a crescendo. As an Independent deputy for Dublin North in 1981, he was one of the TDs who voted against a proposed tax on children's shoes, bringing down Garret FitzGerald's government. Over a quarter of a century later, there is a different Independent deputy in Dublin North.

Finian McGrath is still publicly wrestling with his conscience and still voting with the Government.

Live from Kilgarvan . . .

Dáil votes are tricky things for the Independents. Take this week's private members' motion from Fine Gael on the need to extend the Farm Waste Management Scheme deadline. Privately, many rural Government deputies agreed with the motion, but they did their duty by voting it down.

Jackie Healy-Rae found he had urgent business back in South Kerry which, happily, coincided with the vote. Which meant he didn't have to vote against the motion and annoy local farmers.

However, as mayhem took hold in Leinster House yesterday, and the Independent deputies bagged themselves a lunchtime meeting with Mary Harney on the medical card fiasco, Jackie was unable to get a train back in time. And so, as Michael Lowry and Finian McGrath would have it, the meeting took place with Jackie, "live via satellite from Kilgarvan." He can now boast that he had an "incorporeal" meeting with Harney.

Leo's dye job

Fine Gael's official pup Leo Varadkar during Thursday Dáil debate said: "In addition to the Lenihan levy are the VAT increases. We should be cutting VAT, not increasing it, because this will have a damaging effect on business. I do not know whether black hair dye is included at the higher rate of VAT but even that seems to be going up in this Budget."

What is Leo on about? Surely not his raven-haired constituency colleague, Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan.

He's a pup.

Pity he said it in the Dáil. Otherwise, like former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, Brian could sue.

Greens go nuclear

Still, you have to admire The Greens: The economy is in meltdown, Fianna Fáil is in flitters, pensioners are on the rampage, the Budget was brutal, Northern Ireland's politicians are still squabbling, and Dr Peter Doran of the Greens issues a press release.

"Greens Warn of Increased Threat of Nuclear War". That's the Northern Ireland Greens. There's not a bother on their brethren down South. They're hanging on in Government for dear life. Let those FF backbenchers mutiny: to the Greens, they were always revolting.

Hanafin's heroics

This week's gold medal for bravery goes to Minister for Social and Family Mary Hanafin. On the day after the Knife of Brian performed major surgery on middle-class wallets, Hanafin could be found at South Dublin Dart stations during the Wednesday morning rush hour, smiling grimly and handing out Budget leaflets to commuters.

Still on leaflets, Fine Gael has rushed out its own Budget leaflet for the weekend: All Pain and No Gain.

It features a photograph of Government TDs giving Brian Lenihan a standing ovation after he delivered his Budget.

This is too much agony for the FF backbenchers. They didn't want to leave Leinster House at all yesterday, afraid of what awaited them back in the constituencies. Something's gotta give.

Mary's head for maths

Tánaiste Mary Coughlan had a torrid morning on Thursday in the Dáil. This was one of the things she told the House:

"I ask for the indulgence of the House, given that we need clarity on this issue. Of the savings of €100 million, €86 million is for GPs and €30 million is for pharmacists."

At least she's not Minister for Finance. Thank God Brian Lenihan has a track record in the area . . . Ooops.