Miriam Lord: Winston Churchtown feels the pressure
Committee members get hot under the collar as Minister pops up in the Dáil
The Minister for Transport (also known as Shane Ross) was invited to the rural transport meeting, and was expected to attend. Photograph: Laura Hutton/ The Irish Times
Winston Churchtown. What would we do without him? The Independent Alliance Minister is the gift who keeps on giving.
Here’s the latest episode from his jam-packed, busy, busy life as a workaholic Cabinet hotshot legislating in the fast lane and meeting himself coming back because he has so much on his plate going forward.
On Wednesday morning, the Oireachtas Committee on Transport met to discuss a burning national issue – rural transport. Representatives of taxi organisations and officials from the National Transport Authority were listed as witnesses.
The Minister for Transport (also known as Shane Ross) was invited, and expected, to attend. It is often the case that Ministers can’t make a particular committee meeting due to diary commitments, but an alternative date is usually suggested.
Unfortunately, Winston Churchtown had to disappoint the members who had been so looking forward to hearing his views on improving rural transport links and reducing driving test waiting times.
And, obviously, it will have been a matter of great regret to the Minister that he couldn’t engage with the likes of Danny Healy-Rae and Michael Cahill from the Rural Independents Group, Fianna Fáil’s Robert Troy, Kevin O’Keeffe and Eamon Ó Cuív and Sinn Féin’s Imelda Munster and Rose Conway-Walsh. They are passionate about rural matters, as is the Minister, a horny-handed son of the Southside who lives in the foothills of the Wickla mountains and tweeted a photograph of himself this week standing beside a tree.
But Winston’s absence was unavoidable. His private secretary wrote to the committee – “subject – Rural Taxis+Local Link, Rural Transport Prog” – with the bad news.
“I refer to the above and the attached invite to Minister Ross. Unfortunately, due to pressure of work Minister Ross will NOT be able to attend. He is satisfied, however, that the session will be worthwhile as the NTA will be in attendance at the meeting. Regards” etc.
Imelda Munster couldn’t believe it. “‘Unfortunately due to pressure of work’,” she repeated, incredulous. “He says he can’t attend, but sure, this is his job!”
The TD for Louth got more annoyed about the missing Minister the more she thought about it.
“He gave commitments about rural transport and he should be here to answer questions and to be scrutinised,” she told Fergus O’Dowd, the committee chairman. “That’s, that’s actually unreal! ‘Due to pressure of work’. This is his job and he’s made commitments and now he’s transferring his responsibilities over to others. He should be here to answer questions, particularly when rural transport is on its knees.”
“Yes, of course, yes, yes,” soothed Fergus, nervously.
And then there was the bit about Winston being “satisfied, however, that the session will be worthwhile as the NTA will be in attendance”. Munster was fit to be tied. “He’s the head buck cat. That’s unacceptable. It really is unacceptable. It’s hard to credit that, you know, due to ‘pressure of work’ he can’t be here to answer questions when rural transport is in crisis.”
Robert Troy, Fianna Fáil’s transport spokesman, found Winston’s absence unusual because it was the first time he failed to supply an alternative date when unable to attend a meeting. “And he didn’t actually say ‘it’s a clash in the diary’, he said ‘due to work commitments’.”
Troy, who has shadowed Winston for a long time, remarked: “I would place a bet myself now – if you went in at 11 he’d be in the Members’ [bar] having his elevenses.”
And there the matter might have rested had it not been for a development a few hours later, when the meeting was still going on with rural deputies in full flow.
Caught on TV
Imelda Munster suddenly stopped in her tracks. She looked up at the TV monitor on the wall, then down to the chairman and then back up again to the TV.
“Tell me it isn’t an apparition” she cried, picking her jaw off the floor, “and that I HAVE just seen Minister Ross in the chamber on Topical Issues?”
Right enough, there on the screen was the deputy for Dublin Rathdown, in all his pomp in the Dáil chamber taking a short “Topical Issues” question from Fine Gael’s Colm Brophy on Dublin’s new BusConnects system, with particular emphasis on Templeogue in windswept and isolated Dublin 6w.
Poor Imelda wasn’t the better of it. But it gets worse. After the meeting, as she walked upstairs with Robert Troy, who did they spy only Winston Churchtown, full of smiles and bonhomie and shaking hands to beat the band with a large visiting party of secondary school students and their teachers.
“I couldn’t believe it. Shane Ross knew full well that hard questions were going to be asked at that meeting and he had the brass neck not to turn up,” fumed Imelda afterwards.
“This is a critical transport issue for so many people who don’t live in urban areas and Shane Ross would rather run off to meet schoolchildren and take a routine topical question than face the committee and discuss rural transport,” said Robert. “It’s a disgrace.”
We checked on the elevenses front. The Minister is a creature of habit, from his elevenses in the Members’ Bar to his plate of smoked salmon on brown bread in the same bar at lunchtime.
And we hear he was there on Wednesday, just as Robert predicted.
It’s not right. Someone will have to stage an intervention before the “pressure of work” becomes too much for overworked Winston.
Car park tales
More tales from the Dáil car park, where last week we reported how some TDs like to show off to constituents and friends up in Dublin for the day by getting them free parking in the most exclusive spot in town. Offending politicians drive the cars of pals and family members past the gates (TD and Senators are waved on through, as is their right) and get them inside the Leinster House car park.
At the beginning of this week, we spotted Labour Senator Kevin Humphreys making slow progress on crutches around the corridors of power. It turned out he had been involved in a minor car accident a few days earlier and sustained a leg injury.
It happened in the Merrion Street car park, right beside the recently installed electric car charging point. Kevin parked his car – a brand new Toyota C-HR – beside it and the hybrid vehicle belonging to Róisín Shortall, his former Labour colleague who now jointly leads the Social Democrats.
“I decided, after 35 years driving bangers, to finally buy myself a new car,” he told us. “I was really delighted with it. My first ever new car – only got it three weeks ago. An actual 191 reg.”
When he parked in Leinster House a colleague came over to chat and admire the new jalopy. With the engine still running, Humphreys opened the door and leaned out, resting one foot on the ground. The car is automatic. He hit the wrong button. The Toyota lurched forward, the open door swept into his startled and stationary friend and it was forced back onto Kevin’s leg, crushing it.
“The pain was terrible. I had to do something immediately. The new car has this keyless ignition – I never had that before – and I went to turn off the engine but hit reverse instead. And with that, it shot back and into the car behind.”
There was an unmerciful bang and the shaken Senator limped out to inspect the full damage.
“Róisín was very understanding. To be fair to her, she couldn’t have been nicer about it. We exchanged details, but my no claims bonus is gone and I’ve banjaxed my lovely new car. I can’t believe it – a 191 reg and all.”
The Sandymount-based Senator, who lost his Dáil seat in 2016, sought medical attention and was told he sustained substantial soft-tissue injury.
“I know it could have been much worse. The biggest injury is to my pride, which is badly wounded. I’m absolutely mortified,” he sighed.
Senators were in flying form this week.
They were probably in good humour because it was Christmas.
On Tuesday night, Denis O’Donovan, the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad, hosted his annual Christmas dinner for the Senators who sit in for him as acting chairs. Such was the senatorial social whirl in December, Denis only got around to his own Yuletide bash in February. The leaders of the Seanad’s various political groupings were also invited, while sundry other members wandered in for the feed and weren’t turned away.
Also present was Martin Groves, the clerk of the Seanad, and Bridget Doody, the assistant clerk.
In true Seanad style, the speeches went on forever. “My God, I think there was at least half a dozen of them,” one Senator told us, trying to erase the memory.
They enjoyed dinner and drinks, with Fine Gael’s Joe O’Reilly leading the outpouring of tributes to the popular west Cork Cathaoirleach, who is a very self-effacing and gentlemanly individual compared with some of the notice boxes he has to put up when in the chair.
O’Reilly, a former TD for Cavan-Monaghan, recalled what Denis was like when he arrived in the Seanad in 1989. “A shy kind of fella, great company, who might hide the occasional vodka in his Britvic orange when we were out.”
Joe, who is leader of the Irish delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and is vice-president of the Assembly, also spoke of his friendship with Gerry Horkan, the father of the current Fianna Fáil Senator of the same name. “We used to babysit you and change your nappies,” he told Horkan, who must have been delighted to hear that.
Other speakers included Jerry Buttimer, the Leader of the House, and Paul Coghlan, the Leas-Cathaorleach.
“I must say it was a marvellous occasion,” Reilly told us from Paris yesterday, where he was on Parliamentary Assembly duty. “Christmas is a pretty cluttered time so it was a great idea to have the dinner when there isn’t too much happening. It made the occasion much more enjoyable and everyone had a great time.”
Sadly, there were no carols or crackers and the only turkeys were the living ones who roost in the Dáil and Seanad chambers.
The Taoiseach was also entertaining this week. Leo Varadkar invited his TDs to Government Buildings on Wednesday night for a bite to eat and a backbench bonding session. He ordered in takeaway, which went down very well with his guests.
Not sure if all of them were so keen on his request that they have a good think about Fine Gael and where the party is going. He wanted them to come up with a vision for the future.
“Is that not Leo’s job? Is that not why he gets the big bucks and all the photo ops?” snarked one unimpressed attendee afterwards.