No help for Kenny as home truths break cosy spell
SKETCH:EVERY SO often, reality intrudes on the cosy conflict which characterises Leaders’ Questions.
No doubt Government deputies will dismiss as a stunt Richard Boyd Barrett’s decision to invite more than 50 home helps to watch Dáil proceedings from the public gallery. But the few Coalition TDs who were actually in the chamber stayed nervously quiet when Boyd Barrett announced their presence to the House.
They didn’t like it. No more than Enda Kenny did – he looked unnerved when Richard pointed up to the unhappy group sitting above him.
The Taoiseach was already aware that he wasn’t the most popular man in the place. When he was trying to defend his Minister for Health in the face of tough questioning from Micheál Martin, Enda quickly retreated to his fall-back position.
“Of all the Ministers in this Government, or any government, Minister Reilly has taken on the unenviable task of sorting out the wreckage left by his predecessors,” the Taoiseach blustered.
This was met by the usual weary groans from across the floor. That’s par for the course – but what he wasn’t expecting was the sudden expression of disgust from the public gallery.
It cut through everything, this very female chorus of surprise which greeted his statement: “Aaaaaw!” Enda didn’t look up, but everyone else did. Who were these women? It was mainly women. Some of them clapped their hands to their open mouths, as if surprised themselves by the vehemence of their reaction.
And the Minister for Health looked deeply uncomfortable.
From Micheál Martin to Mary Lou McDonald, James Reilly was getting it in the neck.
McDonald built on the publicly stated misgivings of Reilly’s Minister of State Róisín Shorthall on the primary care issue by adding Leo Varadkar’s comment that his actions could be interpreted as stroke politics.
Then she compounded Dr Reilly’s misery by questioning his suitability for office.
How could the Taoiseach stand by a Minister for Health who had had considerable interests in private medicine and nursing homes at a time that public services in the sector were being cut back and closed?
“He clearly has a direct and evident conflict of interests,” said the Sinn Féin deputy leader, as Reilly looked on glumly.
But it wasn’t much fun for Enda either. McDonald turned the Taoiseach’s clapped-out excuse that it’s all the fault of the previous crowd back on him.
“Surely you, that is so critical of Fianna Fáil and the administration that went before you, should ensure that where strokes are pulled by senior Government Ministers, that you, as Taoiseach, should call time on that.”
The backbenchers squirmed.
Enda adopted his favourite fallback position when under fire from the Shinners. He brought up the recent statements from convicted IRA bomber Dolours Price about Gerry Adams’s alleged links to terrorist acts.
“Oh, for God’s sake, would you for once answer a question in this house?” roared an exasperated Pádraig Mac Lochlainn.
This provided a welcome interlude for Government TDs. They roared back with gusto.
But it didn’t last. Richard Boyd Barrett of the United Left Alliance made sure of that.
“In the gallery today, we have about 50 or 60 home helps who provide vital services of care and support and back-up to our elderly and disabled citizens across the country . . .”
The chamber went deathly quiet. Enda was knocked for six.
Boyd Barrett outlined a litany of cutbacks.
“Most of these home helps here work for voluntary, not-for-profit organisations,” he continued, as the crowd in the public gallery burst into applause and cheered.
The Ceann Comhairle stood and called for silence. An usher shouted “no more clapping”. As the home helps listened intently to his reply, Enda stressed that he respected the work that they do.
“I meet many of them myself. I know the work they do in respect of calling to people who need care and attention, both in the morning, midday, evening and whatever . . .” Eyes rolled heavenwards on the gallery.
It is the Government’s intention, said Enda, that those who needed care got care. “It’s the best care that is given to them and that is the Minister’s intention.”
Boyd Barrett countered by saying he had a strange way of showing it. The home helps were already badly paid, their hours were being cut and scrutinised by the minute.
But the Taoiseach was adamant that where home help was needed, it was given. “They have never been bound by your clock.” Above in the gallery, they certainly didn’t look convinced.
Where people needed help, “they get it”, declared the Taoiseach.
“A half-an-hour?” retorted the ULA’s Joan Collins.
The Ceann Comhairle called time on Leaders’ Questions and moved on to other business, but an uneasy silence hung over the chamber. Government deputies couldn’t get away quickly enough. They know how the cuts are affecting the housebound in their constituencies.
Yesterday, that reality intruded on their cosy Dáil club.
Good enough for them.