Miriam Lord: Endapendents Day ends with sign of relief
New era of partnership politics gets off to rocky start as Kenny finally gets over the line
An Taoiseach Enda Kenny leaving the Dáil after the vote. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Gerry Adams tried to inject some humour as the Dáil waited. “I look around and I think: Where are the Endapendents?” “Where’s Shergar?” shot back Fine Gael’s Brendan Griffin. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
The Dáil had almost died of fright by the time Enda Kenny’s new Government was dragged kicking and screaming into this world.
You think you’ve seen it all when it comes to the machinations of politicians heady on a promise of power, but Leinster House pulled out all the stops yesterday.
For a time, it looked like negotiations on government formation between Fine Gael and Independent TDs would founder over more demands from the obstinate deputies, despite indications that a deal was almost done.
Turf, it emerged, was the main sticking point. The talks had become bogged down.
And yes, turf had been the major issue. But not the peaty substance used to make briquettes. Nothing to do with the land at all.
It was a turf war over ministerial jobs – hardly the epitome of the national interest.
And so Kenny waited in the chamber as the process to elect a taoiseach got under way around midday, not knowing if he would be going to Áras an Uachtaráin later on to pass on the glad tidings of new government to the President or to ask him for permission to call another general election.
His wife and three children watched from the Distinguished Visitors’ Gallery as the hours passed, with still no word from the talks. Above in the Visitors’ Gallery – admission by ticket only for the day that was in it – family groups in their best outfits looked down and listened, waiting for news.
Nobody knew what was happening.
It was a dreadful beginning to a supposed new era of partnership politics; an unedifying first episode that does not augur well for the much vaunted series to come.
There was no arguing with what they said. Kenny and his new team just had to suck it up and get out of the chamber as quickly as the rules allowed so they could get on that bus to the Áras and collect their seals of office.
It was a fitting conclusion to the premiere of Democratic Revolution Part II. TDs had laughed uneasily at first. The show was due to start to start at midday, but when is anything ever on time with Enda?
Slowly, it began to dawn on them that the members of the Independent Alliance grouping were not present. But they laughed it off, making jokes about the absence of Shane Ross and his colleagues.
But the signals from Government Buildings were not good.
A close associate of Kenny looked very worried as he made his way to the public gallery.
“I hope this won’t be another case of Mayo going up to Croke Park for the final and coming home without the cup.”
When the Dáil convened, the Taoiseach did not take his seat with the alacrity of a man who was about to make history by become the first Fine Gael leader to win a second consecutive term. He looked utterly deflated. His wife Fionnuala looked concerned. There were no smiles.
Then the Ceann Comhairle called for other statements. “Is the Taoiseach speaking?” he inquired.
Kenny, head down, paused, then mumbled: “I think that will be after . . .” His voice trailed off.
That would be after a Taoiseach was elected, and he didn’t yet know the answer to that question.
The light-hearted atmosphere at the start of the session was quickly dissipating.
Gerry Adams tried to inject some humour.
“I look around and I think: where are the Endapendents?” he smiled.
“Where’s Shergar?” shot back Fine Gael’s Brendan Griffin. And they all smiled, but not for long.
Back in the chamber, speakers began talking more slowly. Enda wound and unwound a paper clip. He looked haunted.
Meanwhile, all around, realisation was sinking in that this was not a political drill. This was happening – another general election was on the cards if the talks failed.
Their faces said it all. They resembled a ward of patients waiting for their medical test results to come back.
Sinn Féin’s Brian Stanley took out a packet of Polo mints and shared it around. Mary Lou McDonald approached the Ceann Comhairle for a word. She returned and held a brief discussion with Adams. They were joined by Labour’s Brendan Howlin, who then paid a visit to the Ceann Comhairle’s chair.
The clock was ticking down. Then Kenny’s personal assistant appeared at the doors to the chamber. A brown envelope was brought down to the Taoiseach. He opened it and took out a mobile phone.
Reporters left and returned to the press gallery with the latest updates. All six of the Independent Alliance were gone. The Healy-Raes were considering re-entering the fray.
The speeches continued. Joan Burton called the government deal “a fairly tawdry arrangement”. Enda, her erstwhile colleague, gave a rueful smile.
“I think I can safely say I never saw an incoming Taoiseach look so unhappy” said Socialist, Ruth Coppinger.
Still no sign of the Independents. TDs drifted from the chamber.
Then we heard “Michael Noonan is taking Michael Fitzmaurice out for a pint”. A last roll of the dice, apparently.
Clare Daly, who won the speeches by a mile, said she was kind of hoping for an election because she couldn’t take more of the government formation blather.
“We’re not turning into Swedes and Scandinavians overnight,” declared the Green’s Eamon Ryan to an uninterested Dáil on the verge of mild hysterics.
The cavalry arrived over the hill in the nick of time. Noonan arrived just before them, a smile on his face.
You could feel the tension lifting. Kenny smiled. And those TDs who looked very fearful just minutes earlier visibly relaxed. The swagger slowly returned, along with the jousting.
Easy to do now, when nobody was going to get knocked off their horse.
As the evening drew in, the Taoiseach went off to the Áras and then returned to announce his Cabinet.
Shane Ross, true to form, breached the Cabinet confidentiality rule before Enda had a chance to tell the Dáil that Lord Winston Churchtown was now Minister for Transport. That should be fun, given some of the stuff he has written about CIÉ.
Leo Varadkar, not a born diplomat, was consigned to Social Protection. He didn’t look thrilled. Neither did Simon Coveney, who did sterling work during the negotiations. He got the hot potato of housing.
Mary Mitchell O’Connor floated into the Dáil, together with her new female colleagues. Young Simon Harris, who is very competent, will find himself challenged in Health.
And now there are twins in Cabinet – two high chairs at the table with Paul Kehoe and a ecstatic Finian McGrath becoming Super Junior Ministers.
Joan Burton, meanwhile, gave way to Alan Kelly who was Labour’s first speaker after the Cabinet was announced. By the by, modest Alan noted his workload was now across three new departments.
The Taoiseach, as father of the house, promised new beginnings in “this most different, most exciting, most challenging of times”.
They had a false start.
The clock is running now.
Unfortunate beginning notwithstanding, they could be great, if they try and are allowed the chance.