Short thrift for our presidential presents; Minister nails the subject matter; Harsh reality for older gardaí; Healy-Rae saves the day, and a cost-cutting solution that’s just the ticket for the recession

Short shelf life for Obama shamrock

WE HEAVED a sigh of relief this week when that invitation from the White House finally dropped on to Brian Cowen’s doormat. Things are bad enough at home, without the Taoiseach having to endure the indignity of being snubbed by a fellow Offalian across the Atlantic.

“I am delighted to accept President Obama’s invitation to Washington on St Patrick’s Day,” said Brian. “The celebration of our national day in the White House is a great tradition which reflects the enduring friendship between Ireland and the United States.

“I look forward to presenting the president with the bowl of shamrock as a symbol of the warmth and strength of our relationship.” It isn’t known whether this year’s bowl will carry a Waterford Crystal sticker. For a while last week, as recession mania tightened its grip on Government Buildings, there was a rumour that Cowen would be bringing the shamrock over in an Aldi bag.

And what happens the sainted greenery once it’s been handed to Barack? Is it planted in an Irish plot on the White House lawn?

Is it fed to the First Budgie or used as a garnish during the St Patrick’s Day luncheon on Capitol Hill? Sadly, no.

The shamrock is whisked away by the secret service as soon as the photographs are taken and “handled pursuant to secret service policy”. In other words, it’s dumped, because the rules require that all food and floral gifts to the president must be destroyed.

The US state department publishes an annual list of all gifts given to the president by foreign visitors. The latest one, published last month, lists two items given in 2007 by “His Excellency Bertie Ahern, Prime Minister of Ireland.” The first is a “household item: ornate Waterford crystal footed bowl with scalloped border and etched words of presentation.” It was presented on March 16th, valued at an estimated $350 and now reposes in the foreign archives warehouse.

The second comes under the heading “consumables” and relates to “live shamrocks”. They were valued at a whooping $5 and handled pursuant to secret service policy as soon as the media left the Roosevelt Room.

At least Bertie can’t be accused of wasting taxpayers’ money on a useless gift. Five dollars for some great publicity shots sounds like a good investment.

He shares the honour of bringing the least expensive gift to the White House with Maria Auxiliadora Delgado de Vazquez, wife of the president of Uruguay, who, among other items, gave Laura Bush 36 Uruguayan herbal tea bags.

They just pipped His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who brought Ms Bush “an assortment of various nuts and dried fruit,” valued at $6.

Gordon Brown’s 4.4lb box of Charbonnel et Walker chocolates ($222); The King of Morocco’s $400 roses and orchids; The Iraqi president’s assortment of nut pastries ($6) and the prime minister of Qatar’s $932 assortment of “chocolates, fruits and cookies held in a large tin,” all went the way of Bertie’s “consumables”.

Next month, a similar fate awaits Brian Cowen’s live, but soon to be dead, shamrock.

Levy debate keeps Lenihan on his toes

IT WAS late on Wednesday night, and deputies in the Dáil chamber were slowly working their way through the committee stage of the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Bill 2009. (Pension Levy, to you and me.) Brian Lenihan and fellow financial anoraks Joan Burton, Richard Bruton and Pat Rabbitte were discussing the subject of cutting the fees of professional service providers – doctors, lawyers and the like.

The benches were deserted. Few were listening around the House.

The following exchange occurred:

Joan Burton – “I am intrigued by the medical list on page 12, subsection F. What sort of person is that?”

Brian Lenihan – “Which person do you mean? I’m on page 12.”

Pat Rabbitte – “ The kind of person from whom you’d want to stay away.”

Joan – “ It’s at the top of page 12.”

Brian – “A registered pharmacist?”

Joan – “No. I think I understand that. It’s in subsection F.”

Brian – “Ah. A podiatrist.”

Joan – “What’s that?”

Brian – “Someone who deals with feet.”

Joan – “I thought that. But what is a chiropodist?”

Richard Bruton – “A chiropodist looks after toes.”

Pat – “Ingrown toenails.”

Joan – “So one deals with the whole of the foot and the other is just . . . ?”

Brian – “Yes. The podiatrist deals with the shape of your foot and ensures that it’s correct. Many people have flat feet in our population and in the House.”

One presumes he wasn’t talking about himself. The Minister for Finance may have been caught flat footed with his admission about not reading all of the PricewaterhouseCoopers report into Anglo Irish Bank, but he has recovered his equilibrium since then. His agile performance before a Dáil committee on Thursday even won him praise from his Opposition counterparts.

Are they trying to drive a wedge between the two Brians? It’s whispered in Leinster House that Lenihan is the hare to Taoiseach Cowen’s tortoise, and somewhat frustrated by his cautious boss’s less than speedy response to the rapidly evolving economic crisis.

We’ve lost count of the number of times somebody has sidled over to say that the two Brians aren’t even on speaking terms any more. Can’t say we’ve ever noticed it.

If nothing else, it’s in neither of their natures to indulge in that sort of behaviour.

In Aesop’s fables, the tortoise won his race against the hare. How will it turn out in the real world?

Tough choices for public pensioners

MET A colleague outside Leinster House on Wednesday. Her partner is a garda.

We looked on as members of the Garda Representative Assocation protested at the gates.

The situation is so unfair, she complained, explaining that her man will be down €500 a month as a result of the pension levy.

“That’s tough,” we murmured.

“But at least he’ll be able to retire at 50 or so, get his pension and fall into another job. Things could be worse.”

To which she replied: “But you see, that’s the whole problem. There aren’t any jobs around. There’s absolutely no work out there. If things stay like this – My God! – he’ll have to stay in the guards.” There’s no answer to that.

Recession bypasses south Kerry again

AS EVER, Jackie Healy-Rae has his priorities right. He was cock-a-hoop (or should that be cap-a-hoop) during the week, and issued a press release explaining why.

“Thanks a million Mary (or should i say ten million!)

The Independent deputy for Kerry South recently met Tánaiste Mary Coughlan to thank her for her assistance when he was lobbying for funding for the Castleisland bypass.

“She gave me her word that she would use her influence to helped secure funding for this bypass and did not let me down. I am delighted that work will commence immediately.”

Jackie is some operator.

He writes: “During these hard economic times, when funding is being cut for projects, I was able to secure €10,000,000 for this bypass from Noel Dempsey, the Minister for Transport. The Castleisland bypass is the only new road to get funding in 2009.

“When I made the deal with the Government it was in a different economic climate. By continuing my support for this Government and working with them from within, I honestly feel it is the best way to serve and work positively for the people of south and southwest Kerry and for the stability of the country.

“I have always and at all times put the interest of my constituents first.”

That’s the spirit, Jackie. A patriot to your fingertips.

And your constituency rival, Ceann Comhairle John O’Donoghue, will be raging to boot.

TDs looking forward to sleepless nights

CONGRATULATIONS to two Fine Gael deputies, who await the patter of tiny Blueshirts later this year. Cork South Central’s Simon Coveney and wife Ruth, and Clare TD Joe Carey and wife Grace are looking forward to the arrival of summer babies.

“It’s marvellous news, we couldn’t be happier,” Joe tells us. They’ll soon find out that there’s more to sleepless nights than worrying about the economy or the date of the next general election.

Ceasefire looks shaky for frontline troops

THE ANNOUNCEMENT of a billion euro black hole in the budget of the HSE shattered the unnatural air of calm that has prevailed in the Department of Health over the last few months.

Before the recession hit, health and justice were two of the busiest Government departments in terms of having to deal with Opposition criticism, public anger and media attention. But since the economy eclipsed everything, happy handlers in Health and Justice have been referring to their respective bailiwicks as “The Carlsberg Complaints Department” – a place where, according to the TV advert, the phone never rings. Finance is the flashpoint area these days.

Every cloud has a silver lining.

But as they found out in Health this week, it’s only a temporary thing.

Independent minds storm Athlone

THE FIANNA Fáil Ardfheis isn’t the only political event taking place this weekend. It’s Independents Day in Athlone today.

MEP Marian Harkin has organised a seminar for independent councillors and candidates in advance of the local elections. It’s an opportunity for them to network, share their experiences and discuss strategy for the battle ahead.

Speakers include Senator Joe O’Toole, who will talk about The Use of Technology in Elections. This is not a plea from Joe for the return of electronic voting machines, but an address on how the electronic media can be harnessed by candidates during their campaigns.

How the former Ictu president can find the time to get to Athlone, in between jumping (literally) onto every workers’ protest bandwagon that rolls into town, is another question.

Independent TD for Dublin North Central, Finian McGrath will discuss Getting Elected in June 2008 – the Role of the Independent Politician in Modern Ireland. That shouldn’t take too long. In Finian’s case, it means getting as much personal publicity as possible, dignity not important.

Prof Ray Kinsella of UCD will speak on the impact of the global economic recession on Ireland.

That should cheer up the election hopefuls no end.

Mysterious bill follows O’Rourke

THERE’S ONLY one Mary O’Rourke? You would think so, but apparently not.

She tells us a strange tale of the huge bill she received in the post a while back from a top Dublin restaurant.

The bottom line, at the end of an itemised list of “oooh, cakes and fish and all sorts of meat and wine and drink and, oooh, everything . . . ” came to thousands of euro.

The bill was so large, and the fare so lavish, it read like something that might have been run up by a group of Fás executives on a quiet night out.

“The envelope was addressed to Mary O’Rourke TD. There was a signature at the end of this bill, and yes, there it was – somebody had scrawled ‘Mary O’Rourke’,” the redoubtable deputy for Westmeath recalls. “The total was pretty hefty.” The bill – on headed paper – appeared to come from the Pearl Brasserie, a very fine establishment in Merrion Street, just across the road from Leinster House and Government Buildings. “I sent the bill back by return post with a note saying ‘I’ve never been in your restaurant, although I’m sure it’s lovely. I haven’t heard from them since.”

We contacted the Pearl Brasserie yesterday to see if they could solve the mystery of the second Mary O’Rourke.

Manager Julien Murphy was mystified. “We don’t send out bills” he said. “It looks very strange.” He couldn’t recall ever seeing a bill to, or from, a Deputy Mary O’Rourke.

One thing is sure. Had Mammy O’Rourke spent such a long and lavish evening in his restaurant, he wouldn’t have forgotten her.

Could it be that there is a woman running around town pretending to be former minister O’Rourke, signing for lavish meals in her name and instructing that the bill be sent to her in Leinster House? There’s a thought.

All very mysterious.

Admirable attempt

at cost-cutting

WELL DONE to the Clarehall/Elmfield cumman, Dublin North East for putting forward the best resolution of this year’s FF Ardfheis, proposing “all members of the Dáil and Seanad be allowed claim the cost of public transport to and from the Dáil only.”

They just pipped the Liam Lynch Cumann in Cork East, which put forward the excellent “that this ardfheis calls on the Government to introduce free dog licences to old age pensioners”.