Miriam Lord: Balaclava proves a red rag to bullish Varadkar

Leo and Pearse lock horns in verbal scrape about eviction ‘incidents’ and afterwards

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has accused Sinn Féin deputy leader Pearse Doherty of letting his “balaclava slip” in a row over the controversial eviction in Co Roscommon last week. Video: Oireachtas TV

 

For years and years, the Sinn Féin leadership trotted out the same evergreen phrase whenever a comment on a recent or historic atrocity was required.

“We will not engage in the politics of condemnation.”

“There is nothing to be gained by indulging in the politics of condemnation.”

This handy saying covered, and covered up, a multitude. And, true to their word, the party’s politicians never engaged nor indulged.

That was back in the pre-cookbook days, before Gerry Adams branched out into light entertainment and before the beatification of Martin McGuinness.

Now though, condemnation is all the rage. In fact, one of the biggest charges levelled against the party by Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil these days is that its leader and TDs never do anything else but complain and condemn.

Pearse Doherty, standing in for Mary Lou McDonald during Leaders’ Questions on Tuesday, had the condemnation level set to high when he raised the recent eviction of three elderly siblings from their home in Roscommon by a group of private security men from a company in Northern Ireland. Disturbing video footage of the incident is on the internet. The hired muscle was engaged by a bank seeking to enforce a court order.

“This idea that banks’ enforcers, these thugs – and I call them thugs – can enter into somebody’s property, can cut down locks, can break down doors, can take somebody out by their ears, can kick somebody on the ground and push them out of their own home and property while guards watch on is not acceptable,” Doherty told the Taoiseach, urging the Government to speedily enact legislation to bring the actions of these enforcers under the Private Security Services Act.

He was angry. But Pearse is always angry. When he’s in full flight, you can hear him easily from the bottom of the main staircase leading up towards the Dáil chamber.

‘A disgrace’

The events of last week were appalling, he said. “It was an ordeal of thuggery from a group of men acting on behalf of a financial institution with the gardaí watching on. That’s a cause of significant concern to any right-thinking people. What happened in Roscommon was a disgrace, it was unjustified and it brought to mind scenes of our past where families were being evicted and thrown on to the side of the road.”

Sinn Féin’s deputy leader told the Taoiseach that too many of these types of forced evictions have been happening recently. “We need to ensure that we don’t see a repeat of the incidents and the nonsense that we saw in Frederick Street where people were wearing balaclavas in Dublin in September, or the incidents in Roscommon last week and the incidents that followed it,” he thundered.

Irish politics may have moved on hugely since the bad old days of the Troubles, but when a Sinn Féin TD mentions anything to do with a balaclava in Dáil Éireann, it is still guaranteed to provoke a predictable response from members of the two largest parties. Doherty’s use of the word had them muttering and smirking.

It also proved to be a red rag to a bullish Taoiseach. The Sinn Féin benches would soon feel the full brunt of Varadkar’s version of The Politics of Condemnation.

He agreed with Doherty, in both his replies, that there was a need to tighten up the legislation in this area and he didn’t disagree with him on the unacceptable behaviour of the men who carried out the Roscommon eviction.

“The lack of accountability is shocking,” cried Doherty. “Those who are enforcing evictions and acting in a violent and abusive way need to be held to account.”

Again, he got no argument from the Taoiseach.

However, while the Sinn Féin TD was railing against the banks and the actions of their agents during evictions, the Taoiseach was much more cautious.

Fraud and evasion

He began by saying it was best not to say too much about individual cases, before going into some detail about the Roscommon case, as he knows of it.

“The facts behind this individual case seem to be about much more than an elderly farm family being evicted from their farm. It involves many years of debts and arrears, involves VAT fraud, involves tax evasion, involves lots of other things. So I think we should be careful not to assume that any individual case doesn’t have reasons behind it.”

Doherty didn’t think he was exercised enough about what had actually happened in Roscommon. Varadkar stressed that the courts only issue eviction orders in rare cases and with good reason, while there is a lot of help available for people who find themselves in financial difficulties.

“Will you ensure this is the last time that unauthorised unregulated bank henchmen will be entering property and behaving in the type of despicable way that we saw in Roscommon last Tuesday?” he was asked.

The Taoiseach said the Government accepted “it may well be a wise thing and a good idea to now amend the law to cover the regulation of these security agents by the private security services”. The Minister for Justice is already working on it.

But then, perhaps it was the mention of balaclavas which did it, Leo let loose, bringing up the second part of the Roscommon story.

“I’m very concerned, deputy, that you had nothing to say about what happened afterwards – 20 or 30 people arriving in a cattle truck armed with baseball bats who then injured three or four other people, set cars alight . . . and caused an animal to be shot dead.”

Nothing, in both his contributions.

“I did, in my first contribution,” bridled Pearse, presumably referring to the bit where he talked about “incidents in Roscommon last week and the incidents that followed it”.

But he didn’t condemn them, insisted Leo, repeatedly, with a strong hint of condemnation in his voice.

Bank’s enforcers

Pearse countered by saying the Taoiseach didn’t say anything about the “thuggish behaviour” of the bank’s enforcers.

“We have already said we don’t condone the violence,” Pearse added.

“But do you condemn it?” interjected Minister for Health Simon Harris.

Then the Taoiseach said he condemned violence “by anyone under any circumstances so let there be no doubt about this”.

So there.

As both men argued over whose condemnation was the best, Leo Varadkar couldn’t resist a bit of verbal thuggery.

“When it comes to Sinn Féin and the rule of law and public order and condemning violence, it doesn’t take very long for your balaclava to slip.”

There was consternation.

Pearse, who is a few decibels short of a sonic boom at the best of times, was on his feet, roaring.

“Disgraceful!”

There was anguished howls in the Leas Ceann Comhairle’s direction from Sinn Féin. “Withdraw that remark!”

“What remark?” asked the chair, innocently.

“About my balaclava slipping,” cried Pearse.

Leo Varadkar sat back and smiled to himself.

But in the hierarchy of “thugs”, do different acts of thuggery command different levels of condemnation?

He is right about there being two sides to some eviction stories, but the Taoiseach could have been more exercised about what happened in Roscommon – before and after. The sight of tough guys in black, recruited from Northern Ireland, dragging people from their home while one of them takes the time to say he is British, not Irish, is very disturbing.

And should be worth more than an excuse to have another kicking at Sinn Féin.