Miriam Lord’s Week: Giddiness and score-settling in a confidence-shaking Dáil session

A Maltese minister visited Leinster House and it wasn’t a pretty sight

Minister for Foreign Affairs  Simon Coveney and his Maltese counterpart   Carmelo Abela

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and his Maltese counterpart Carmelo Abela

 

In the middle of Wednesday’s Dáil slapstick when TDs knocked lumps out of each other for sport, a visiting parliamentary delegation from Malta arrived in the chamber to observe the proceedings.

The no-confidence debate in the Minister for Health had long since degenerated into a full-on slagging match by the time Carmelo Abela (below), the Maltese minister for foreign affairs, pitched up in the Distinguished Visitors’ Gallery with his entourage. When the Leas Cheann Comhairle called a break in hostilities to welcome him, TDs broke into a giddy round of applause.

“It’s not usually like this, minister,” added Pat “the Cope” Gallagher as Abela stood to acknowledge the tribute. The polite nature of the interlude was in such sharp contrast to the general rowdiness preceding it that TDs from all sides burst out laughing at the daftness of it all. Then the ever polite Simon Coveney turned to face his fellow foreign minister and repeated what Pat the Cope said: “Sorry, we’re not usually like this.”

Whereupon a voice rose from the babble.

“Oh, yes we are!”

Simon Harris, who was supposed to be the subject of the debate, was relegated to a minor role for most of the time as Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil got stuck into each other. Fine Gael also attacked Sinn Féin who reciprocated with gusto and there was a brief untypical skirmish between Coveney and Labour’s Brendan Howlin.

A constituency-based niggling contest ran in parallel between the Minister for Health and Sinn Féin’s John Brady, a fellow TD for Wicklow. At one point, as Harris accused Brady’s party of “walking away” from the health ministry in Northern Ireland, Brady shot back “you walked away from Fianna Fáil when you were in it”.

His colleagues guffawed.

But FF’s Billy Kelleher spotted the open goal immediately.

“Mary Lou McDonald was a member of Fianna Fáil too.”

Ooops.

It was debate of the highest standard.

As the final bell approached, Jim Daly, a Minister of State, got slightly muddled about who Fine Gael was supposed to be attacking and launched into a tirade against Fianna Fáil, the party which is keeping his crowd in government (with ominously increasing difficulty). Daly bashed his confidence-and-supply supporters around the ears with the ghost of Anglo Irish Bank.

How dare Fianna Fáil criticise his Government for squandering money when it “sank the price of over 15 children’s hospitals into one defunct bank of the elite and wealthy, with not one penny ever to be seen again?”

And suddenly, confused Sinn Féin TDs were cheering Fine Gael while Daly’s alarmed colleagues were wondering what he was at. The Government was banking on FF abstentions to defeat the motion and one of their own was going out of his way to insult the entire party.

“You’re six minutes from the vote!” Fianna Fail’s Anne Rabbitte roared across the floor, utterly incensed. “Six minutes!”

But they gritted their teeth and abstained anyway for the sake of the little baby Brexit.

The debate, while achieving nothing, was an entertaining change from the usual dull Thursday night fare in the Dáil.

The Maltese foreign minister will have left Leinster House with a completely false impression of how the lively and passionate Irish parliament goes about its late evening business.

There was one casualty as a result of Sinn Féin’s motion of no confidence, but it wasn’t Harris.

Independent TD Peter Fitzpatrick, the former Fine Gael deputy for Louth who left the party last year over the abortion referendum, voted against the Government. Retribution was swift.

Peter was allowed to stay in his office in the FG section after departing over an issue of conscience. When he voted no confidence in the Minister for Health on Wednesday, he was kicked out of the office on Thursday.

Mary Mitchell-O’Connor. Haunted by Dáil driving faux pas but not the only one.
Mary Mitchell-O’Connor. Haunted by Dáil driving faux pas but not the only one.

Parking perks not without downsides

Mary Mitchell O’Connor, the Minister of State for Higher Education, made national headlines on her first day as a TD when she drove her car down the central plinth outside Leinster House and came a cropper on the steps at the bottom of it.

It was an easy mistake to make for somebody unfamiliar with the layout and, at the time, Mitchell-O’Connor thought she was following the proper route from the car park to the main gates. The incident has followed her ever since.

But she wasn’t the first driver to make that mistake and she definitely isn’t the last. It happened again this week. On this occasion, the confused driver drove around the Kildare Street tarmac, turned onto the limestone plinth and motored down it, successfully negotiating the steps at the far end as visitors watched in fascination from the glass-walled security station at the main entrance and ushers rushed out to investigate.

But a most interesting aspect of this latest episode – one which raises questions about the wonderful parking privileges which go with being a serving or past member of the Oireachtas – concerns who was actually behind the wheel. It wasn’t a TD or Senator, but a member of the public who had just enjoyed a long session of free and secure parking in one of the most congested and expensive areas of Dublin city centre.

How could this happen? Well, it seems it happens more often than it should.

Apparently, certain TDs and Senators, not content with the great perk they already enjoy as privileged politicians, like to show off to people from back home by swinging much-prized parking for them at Leinster House. They do this by driving their guest’s car through the gates, with the guest or guests as passengers, and parking it in one of the two exclusive carparks at the front and back of the building. The guests then head off for some retail therapy around Grafton Street or whatever else they want to do on their day in Dublin before heading back to Leinster House where their friend the politician is waiting or has left their names at the gate.

This practice is completely against the rules, and also has insurance implications as the car parks are reserved for Oireachtas members, past and present. And while staff may be well aware that the car an elected representative is driving is not for their own use, they can do nothing about it.

Our informant tells us that TDs and Senators from rural constituencies which are not within easy commuting distance are the ones most prone to pull a fast one when it comes to this type of parking.

The incident this week involved an acquaintance of a Fianna Fáil TD from Munster. The TD, who drove the car through the Kildare Street gates in the first place, was not present when the owner – who had never parked there before – returned some hours later. Not knowing the layout, he made the same elementary mistake as Mitchell-O’Connor (above) back in 2011.

On sitting days, the car parks are very busy and often full to capacity. It doesn’t help that former members of both Houses are entitled to free parking for life at Leinster House, even if they only spent a wet week in the place.

But that doesn’t seem to bother some politicians, whose sense of entitlement knows no bounds

Billy Kelleher and Micheál Martin during the 2016 election campaign. Billy wants Brussels; Micheál wants all hands on deck back home. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Billy Kelleher and Micheál Martin during the 2016 election campaign. Billy wants Brussels; Micheál wants all hands on deck back home. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Billy-Barry kids and the Brussels two-step

The Billy-Barry kids will be a major attraction at the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis today. Everyone is dying to see how they’ll perform.

They could easily steal the limelight from party leader Micheál Martin, who is topping the bill with his keynote address in the City West hotel.

But Cork North Central’s Billy Kelleher and Offaly’s Barry Cowen might turn out to be the audience’s favourite by the end of the one-day get together in Saggart.

Both men want to contest the European elections and both of them would waltz into a seat if they got the nod to run.

But while Micheál desperately wants to bag three new MEPs in the May election, thus wiping the memory of an abysmal performance the last time out, he can’t afford to lose the crowd-pleasing Billy-Barrys from his domestic troupe. This week, he tightened the screws on Kelleher and Cowen, making it very clear that their duty is to the party and their party requires them to run for the Dáil in the next general election and bring home a running mate to boot.

The Billy-Barry kids are not too happy about this. On Friday, Barry Cowen reluctantly confirmed he will be hanging up his dancing shoes where Europe is concerned but Billy Kelleher is determined to join the chorus in Europe and become an MEP.

His party leader wants both of them to stay at home.

We’re not saying that Micheál’s willingness to publicly go on the record with his opposition to Kelleher’s desired move to Brussels smacked of desperation, but the fact that he was willing to sing the praises of the other Cork-based hopeful, Councillor Séamus McGrath, has been a source of some mirth.

Séamus only happens to be the brother of one Michael McGrath, the party’s finance spokesman who is often touted as a future leader and is Micheál’s constituency colleague and arch-rival in Cork South Central.

The joke in Fianna Fáil is that if he does nothing else, Kelleher has already achieved the impossible by uniting the warring McGrath and Martin factions in Cork.

Micheál Martin has since moderated his tone following his candid comments about what he expects from his biggest vote getters, but the damage is already done. Barry swiftly retrieved his hat from the electoral ring after Billy was so publicly done over by the boss this week in the Cork Evening Echo.

Micheál now says he is not trying to block his candidacy, while standing so firmly on Billy’s feet his bunions are pleading for mercy.

In fact, the Fianna Fáil leader now stresses he is “not against anyone” putting themselves forward.

Kelleher and Cowen won’t see it that way. When the curtain rises in City West, all eyes will be on the Billy-Barry kids to see what moves, if any, they do next.