Long-overlooked Labour seizes chance to make a splash

Dáil sketch: Brendan Howlin dive-bombs into the Garda Commissioner controversy

Brendan Howlin:  The Labour leader wondered if it might not be a good idea for Nóirín O’Sullivan  to step aside or “be placed on administrative leave” for the duration of Mr Justice Peter Charleton’s investigation. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Brendan Howlin: The Labour leader wondered if it might not be a good idea for Nóirín O’Sullivan to step aside or “be placed on administrative leave” for the duration of Mr Justice Peter Charleton’s investigation. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

It’s difficult to get attention when you’re only small.

Toddlers are hard-wired to overcome this. They know how to throw a tantrum.

Politicians from small groupings are in the same predicament, always standing on their tippy-toes trying to get noticed above the bellowing herds from the larger parties.

Labour used to run with a bigger crowd. Now, way down the showboating pecking order, it’s a battle for Brendan Howlin and his handful of TDs to make any sort of impact in the Dáil.

They need the occasional spectacular to remind voters not to forget them.

Yesterday, it was time to make a splash.

Howlin began his assault on Leaders’ Questions in typical verbose style.

He offered his observations on the Government’s decision to set up a commission of inquiry into allegations that the Garda Commissioner was active in a campaign to blacken the character of a nationally prominent whistleblower. (Allegations that Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan has always vehemently rejected.)

“Incredibly serious,” said the incredibly serious Brendan.

The Labour leader wondered if it might not be a good idea for her to step aside or “be placed on administrative leave” for the duration of Mr Justice Peter Charleton’s investigation. It’s the sort of thing which would happen with a school principal or shop manager, he pointed out.

Better for everyone if the investigators are given a free run without having to worry if the boss’s controlling hand is quietly operating against them in the background.

So he found it “troubling” that the Garda Commissioner will still be in charge when outsiders are poking their noses around her manor.

Half-listening

We’ve seen enough television drama to know the score. But people were only half-listening.

Mentions of the Garda Commissioner aren’t as compelling as they used to be, and there are so many scoping inquiries and commissions of investigation happening around the place that mention of them tends to go in one ear and out the other now.

Then Brendan moved onto the second part of his question.

Splash time.

With any fanfare he tucked his knees in under his arms and dived-bombed into the middle of the midday slump.

Howlin revealed he had spoken earlier to a journalist with “direct knowledge” of other journalists having received phone calls from the commissioner telling them that whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe was a sex offender.

There was a mild flurry on the press gallery.

TDs lifted their heads from their phones and iPads.

“The commissioner, in 2015, oversaw the investigation which examined the call logs of a garda who was under suspicion of leaking material to the media. If it was a fact that the Garda Commissioner was in direct contact with the media making allegations against one of her own officers at around the same time, it would be extraordinary.”

Now, just to be clear, Brendan stressed he doesn’t know if what he was told is true or not.

Pre-electrification

The House entered a pre-electrification stage.

The Ceann Comhairle nearly fell out of his throne.

“Ye can’t be sayin’ dat!” cried Seán Ó Fearghaíl, or words to that effect.

“You are taking us into territory that I think we should not be venturing into.”

“I’m making no allegation,” insisted Brendan, as the corridor behind the gallery reverberated with the thump of journalistic feet racing back to laptops.

“You are making an allegation,” shouted Fianna Fáil’s Barry Cowen.

Ó Fearghaíl explained why he was concerned. It was fine to mention the commission of inquiry, but what one hack told another hack who passed this on to the Labour leader was an entirely different matter.

Fair enough, said Brendan, adding that the last time information was passed to him he told the Minister for Justice about it, who began an inquiry and then “ended up in both the High and Supreme Court, where I was told the proper course of action would have been to raise these matters directly in the House”.

Oh.

The chamber fell silent. They weren’t expecting that.

The Taoiseach gave the first of two very careful replies. This latest inquiry follows on from a scoping exercise, where the judge involved “couldn’t have attempted to establish where the truth lies in respect of the very serious allegations made here”. As it stands, there is no finding of wrongdoing against O’Sullivan.

The Labour leader repeated his call for her to stand aside.

Meanwhile, his depth-charge was detonating in newsrooms while around Leinster House, parties were preparing press releases in advance of the publication of the terms of reference of the new inquiry.

‘All about Nóirín’

When they arrived in late afternoon, the snappily titled Commission of Investigation into certain matters relating to two disclosures made by members of An Garda Síochána under the Protected Disclosures Act 2014 could just as easily been called “All About Nóirín”.

It immediately caused ripples.

But Brendan made the splash.

Its narrow frame of reference brought his Dáil call for the embattled commissioner to stand aside into sharp focus.

Then Joan Burton, Howlin’s predecessor, put on an entertaining display of faux outrage over news that Fine Gael hopes to raise a few bob by selling tickets to people to attend events with some of the party’s big names. Breakfast with Noonan and Lunch with Leo. That sort of thing.

Joan was utterly appalled.

Cash for access!” she spluttered for the headline writers, along with dark mutterings about “corruption”.

The Taoiseach was also appalled to hear his erstwhile tánaiste accuse his party of being corrupt. “It’s beneath you.”

“Disgraceful,” flapped Joan, forgetting that Labour has sold a fair few tickets for the feed with a minister in its time.

“You were pretty good at it yourself,” retorted Enda.

“Excuse me?” gasped Joan, utterly outraged. “EX-CU-ISE ME?”

I would like the Taoiseach to withdraw that allegation right now.”

The long-suffering Ceann Comhairle said he didn’t hear it.

“If you’re going to give it, take it,” smiled Enda.

Joan continued to loudly protest because “it would be wrong in any democracy” (when Labour isn’t in power).

The Taoiseach laughed. “You can come along to one of the breakfasts.”

All in all, a good day’s work for overlooked Labour.