For whom the Seanad bell doesn't toll; North's Ministers cook the book; the social diary of a former taoiseach and Harris wags the dog

IF BAD luck, like a recession, comes in cycles, then Taoiseach Cowen has to pedal twice as hard these days.

In the midst of the nation's financial woes, at least Brian could console himself with the comforting thought that some day soon, as senior man in the constituency, he may be welcoming Barack Obama to Offaly. Obama can trace the teensiest piece of his roots back to the village of Moneygall, which has been en fete ever since he became president-elect of the USA.

A problem has arisen for Biffo, though. Should the day ever dawn when America's first black president pays a visit to his Irish "home place," he will, of course, be greeted by the senior man in the constituency.

Step forward, so, Deputy Michael Lowry.

When the electoral boundaries were recently redrawn, Moneygall, along with places like Shinrone, Dunkerrin and Brosna, was moved from Laois/Offaly into Tipperary North.

A blow, make no mistake, to Brian Cowen, who has seen a sizeable chunk of his personal vote cross the border along with his hopes of squiring President Obama around his personal political stomping ground.

But fear not. Deputy Lowry is up to the challenge. "I'll go out and brief Obama, fly back with him and introduce him to all the local characters. My contacts in the White House tell me that, subject to FBI clearance, Brian Cowen will be allowed to cross the border into North Tipp on the big day." Michael has already done a reconnaissance of the Moneygall area in readiness for the visit and the next general election. Already, with suitable ports of call in mind, he has been seen measuring up the counter in Hayes's bar and grocery.

Meanwhile, the Moneygall connection has sensationally thrown up what may go down in history as the first difficult and diplomatically sensitive decision to be faced by the Obama administration.

Will Barack support Offaly or Tipp in the hurling? While Moneygall is situated within Offaly, its hurlers play in the Tipperary county championship. Now, to add to the confusion, the village remains under Offaly county council for the local elections while switching to Tipperary North for the general election.

"It's confusing up there now," says Michael Lowry. "They won't know where to turn, what county to shout for or who to go to for a twist." Somebody will have to inform the president-elect. Or maybe Biffo explained the situation to him when they talked over the phone last Tuesday night, and he proudly extended the invitation to Barack to come and join him in Moneygall.

Chiming in on Seanad vote

The mystery of the Seanad bells that didn't ring gripped the Upper House on Wednesday. The incident happened after lunch, when a vote was taken on the Housing Miscellaneous Bill. The first vote was done electronically, and the Government won by a margin of two.

When the doors of the chamber were unlocked after the result was in, a posse of panting politicians, led by Donie Cassidy, were found standing outside, pawing the carpet. The Fianna Fáil leader in the Seanad protested as soon as the result was announced and demanded a second "walkthrough" vote, in accordance with standing orders. He protested that some Senators had not heard the division bells when they rang. The required four members, including Independent Senator Shane Ross, supported Donie's call and the vote was taken. This time, the Government margin was a more solid five.

David Norris was among a number of Senators who got to the chamber without problems. He says he doesn't know what the fuss was about, as he heard the bells and thought he saw one or two of the Senators who said they didn't in his vicinity at the time.

"I refused to stand when the second vote was called. I think it's your duty to embarrass the Government. If they miss a vote, let them stew." One Fianna Fáil Senator insisted that the bells didn't ring in the members' restaurant. However, a spokesman for the Oireachtas press office said yesterday that all the bells in Leinster House are in full working order and there is no problem with them.

The bongs are different, depending on whether votes have been called in the Dáil, the Seanad or a committee. All sound equally annoying, but sometimes politicians who have been around a long time don't hear them anymore.

By the way, the Seanad bells are also known as the "Cuckoo Bells," because that's the way they sound. Some might ask why the fuss by Donie and his colleagues, seen as the first vote was in the Government's favour. Others wonder if it's a sign of the strict new regime within Fianna Fáil, with deputies and Senators petrified of getting an earful if they miss a division.

Food for thought

A charity cookbook was launched last week in the North, featuring the favourite recipes of about 80 Assembly members.

The MLA's contributions range from simple offerings to complex dishes. First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson delegated the task of submitting a recipe to his wife Iris, who came up with "Iris Robinson's Chocolate Balls," much to the delight of the local media.

Sinn Féin's Pat Doherty opted for fruity porridge, a very technical dish involving cooking a bit of porridge, slicing some fruit and putting it on top.

The DUP's Jim Shannon offered up "hedgehog cake," which one suspects could be garnished with Mrs Robinson's chocolate balls. Chocolate seems a recurring theme among the Democratic Unionists - Jeffrey Donaldson went with profiteroles.

Sinn Féin's Gerry Kelly is a dark horse with his Fried Scallop Borlotti while Gerry Adams kept the mood seafood with his oven- baked wild Irish salmon.

The recipe-packed book is published by the Portaferry Branch of Cancer Research, which hopes to raise £25,000 through sales in the run up to Christmas.

Ahern's long lunch

The ubiquitous Bertie Ahern hasn't been out of the newspapers since he stepped down as taoiseach. It must be a great source of comfort to Brian Cowen, as he battles to get the country's finances in shape and ships media criticism of his performance, to see Bertie popping up all over the place with words of advice.

How must poor Biffo feel after a grim day at the office, when he opens up a paper to see yet another image of a grinning Ahern, bearing up bravely in his wheelchair and pointing his plastered leg at the camera? We feel for the Taoiseach, who hasn't had much of a chance to find his feet on the national stage while his predecessor is still clinging to the footlights with alarming determination.

On Tuesday night, Bertie was in Dublin's Mansion House for the 2008 launch of Long Lunches at the Mansion House. This corporate event, involving a slow boozy festive lunch followed by a talk, interview and Q&A session with a celebrity, is now in its third years and past guests include Frankie Dettori, Tommy Tiernan, Eddie Hobbs, Jack Charlton and Mario Rosenstock.

This year's lunches feature comedian Risteard Cooper (December 19th) and Bertie Ahern (December 12th).

"Following a seasonal and festive Friday luncheon, host Hector Ó hEochagain will invite the guest speaker to talk about their life and times and give an insight to their world," says the press release.

The Drumcondra mafia is expected to turn out in force to hear Bertie's insights. According to a spokesperson for Corporate Solutions, the company hosting the function, nearly all the tickets for Bertie's gig are sold out but some are still available.

The former taoiseach will be performing with Hector in The Round Room of the Mansion House, where 45 tables of 10 guests will sit down to lunch, at a cost €200 a head.

Work it out. Is Bertie getting a fee. Yes, he is, but we weren't told how much. No wonder he looked so happy in the promotional shots in Wednesday's papers, posing with a turkey.

Banking on Bertie

Then Bertie was snapped in his wheelchair for the front pages on Thursday, singing with the Palestrina Choir.

Yesterday, he was the star turn at a Wicklow County Council event at Leopardstown Racecourse, designed to attract investors to the county.

According to our spies, the former taoiseach went down a storm with his jolly quips and financial advice. In fact, he did something of a Chuckle Brothers double act with the chief executive of the bailed out Anglo Irish Bank, Sean Fitzpatrick. Or "Seanie," as Bertie called his old mucker.

Bertie said he had been through many ups and down in his time, and in his experience, the bad days never lasted much longer than 10 months.

Both he, and Mr Fitzpatrick - who looked less chirpy - referred to the end of the recession as "the other side of the hill." He said was delighted to hear housing was now cheaper in Wicklow than in Dublin, as that wasn't always the case.

Commenting on the State bailout of the banks, Bertie the Comic said "It's great to see, as a socialist, that all these things come around." As for the racecourse venue? "It's great to be here, we could all be back here on Stephen's Day. If you can't make money any other way, you can try it on a horse." It was a pity to see d'oul bank shares going down the swannee, mused the Bert. Then he looked at Sean Fitzpatrick and quipped "although I think Seanie has a bit left!" The audience almost needed oxygen, they laughed so much.

As for the same Mr Fitzpatrick, who urged the Government to tackle the inequities in child benefit and medical cards for pensioners in the Budget after his bank had been bailed out by the taxpayer, he decided not to talk of matters economic. Instead, he spoke of his childhood in Bray and the lovely mountains and sea resorts of Wicklow.

Eoghan's happy tale

Good to see Senator Eoghan Harris back and fighting in the Seanad after his brush with prostate cancer. He announced during the week that he is taking a 10 per cent cut in his Oireachtas salary - €7,013.41 to be precise.

"I'm still battling the aftermath of the cancer, but I feel fine and I'm in good mental health" he tells us.

He has reason to be in good spirits. Not only is he about to celebrate his first wedding anniversary to Gwendoline Halley, but he has also taken another young woman into his life, making his a household of one argumentative Senator and three feisty females.

Last week, he brought home Dolly, "an incredibly beautiful, eight-week-old fluffy snowball of Bischon Frise and West Highland terrier.

"Gwen's and Posy's noses are very much out of joint, not least because my women are getting younger." Posy is his venerable West Highland Terrier.

He says he got Dolly - "a country and western dog, if she could dress she'd wear short denim skirts and white boots" - from Sean Fortune's farm in Gorey. Sean takes in stray dogs, trains them for rehoming then sells them and sends the money to the charity Bóthar.

Ned goes for Dairygold

Fianna Fáil's Ned O'Keefe has never been a man to shy away from a fight, and he has been waging a long battle against Gerry Henchy, chief executive of Dairygold, for what he claims is his part in "the destruction of one of Ireland's finest companies".

This is strongly rejected by the company, who say his remarks and allegations against the company and its chief executive are totally groundless.

Ned has taken to calling Mr Henchy "Gerry Rubble" and has done so on occasions in the Dáil and at Oireachtas committees.

In a front page story in this week's The Corkman newspaper, the controversial Cork deputy was reported as saying the would "intentionally snub" Agriculture Minister Brendan Smith's visit to Dairygold in Mitchelstown.

He described yesterday's event as "an insult to the people of north Cork, given what Gerry Henchy has done to the dairy industry, to the pigmeat industry and what he has done to the co-operative movement.

"He has turned the place into rubble. I have raised in the Dáil three times what has happened in the towns of Mitchelstown and Mallow and the way the place has been turned into rubble. I have dubbed him Gerry Rubble."

We contacted Ned yesterday, who was at pains to point out that he never had any intention of snubbing the Minister. His ire was reserved for the man he calls "Gerry Rubble." Again, a claim that has been repeatedly rejected by Dairygold.

Ned met the Minister yesterday, and together, they weathered a storm of protest from angry Cork farmers.

"They really turned on us. They were protesting about everything in general. Telling me I was out of touchy. If you went to Quinnsworth for a week's shop, you wouldn't have a list as long as their complaints. Jesus Christ, it was unbelievable."

Deputy O'Keefe is not without his sympathy for the farmers. He was the first Irish politician to predict the current problem with the banks, but nobody gave him a hearing.

Astute businessman Ned isn't very confident of an upturn at anytime in the near future.

"We built the economy on bags of cement, and there was no foundation, and all the blocks fell down," says the sage of Mitchelstown.