Higgins displays well-stocked mind


Dail Sketch/Frank McNally: The house was in a mood for gardening yesterday. Maybe it was the spring weather, or maybe it was news that Bertie Ahern's orchid - the one named after him in Singapore - was now being cultivated at the Botanic Gardens in Drumcondra. Either way, when the Taoiseach faced Question Time, Opposition parties were out with the pruning shears.

Enda Kenny went beyond pruning, expressing hope that, as soon as the chance arose, the electorate would perform an "orchidectomy" on the Taoiseach. If Mr Ahern didn't know what an orchidectomy was, suggested Enda, he could check with one of his backbench doctors. Bertie just grimaced back at him.

On a more poetic note, the Fine Gael leader warned the botanical Taoiseach that "full many a flower is born to blush unseen/And waste its sweetness on the desert air". Unfortunately, Enda attributed the lines to "Shelley" and was himself nipped in the bud by a frowning Joe Higgins. A teacher, Joe pointed out that the lines were from Gray. If the Dáil had been a classroom, he'd have sent the FG leader to the back.

Perhaps Enda was thinking of Shelley's The Sensitive-Plant, a poem that also deals with mortality. And right enough, if the Taoiseach did undergo an orchidectomy, he would be a very sensitive plant afterwards. But the incident highlighted again that Joe Higgins is the Roy Keane of the Opposition benches. When he's not hounding the Government, he's keeping his own side of the House on their toes.

Among the issues the Government was hounded about yesterday, the Great Southern Hotels sale dominated. The Taoiseach has been a long supporter of the group, retreating to Parknasilla every summer to get "far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife". Pat Rabbitte acknowledged as much, and so found it all the more regrettable that Mr Ahern was succumbing to the PD philosophy of "putting everything under the hammer".

Labour's Kerry TD Breeda Moynihan-Cronin thought the decision "shameful". But with a look of resignation, the Taoiseach said that if the hotels couldn't break even last year, when record numbers visited Ireland, there was something wrong. In any case, the decision had been taken by the board.

"Fianna Fáil hacks appointed by you," snapped Roy Keane, who foresaw the privatised hotel group heading the same way as Irish Ferries. Indeed, when Mr Ahern referred to the airport hotel as the group's "flagship", the Socialist Party man was in again to suggest this was an "unfortunate choice of words".

Mr Higgins said the hotels' fate only confirmed his long-held belief that social partnership was a "fraud". Whenever he had put it to the Taoiseach in the past, "you have treated me as if I was a rare orchid", added Joe, who may not be an orchid but is certainly cultivated.