Coughlan lets cat out of bag; Greens dress down; farewell to Gerry Naughton; painter decorated; Lenihan's lip; Ivana and the ladies who lunch; Willie O'Dea's straw man

THANKS TO the late Spike Milligan, our singing Taoiseach won't be at a loss for a party piece during the festive season.

"I'm walking backwards for Christmas/Across the Irish Sea, I'm walking backwards for Christmas/It's the only thing for me.

"I've tried walking sideways/And walking to the front, But people just look at me/And say it's a publicity stunt.

"I'm walking backwards for Christmas . . ."

The latest reversal came on Thursday, when Minister for Social Welfare Mary Hanafin came on radio and announced the Government was dropping its proposal to end disability allowances for teenagers between the age of 16 and 18. This was no surprise. The cut wasn't saving much money, it would have meant further hardship for the families affected and was drawing very negative media coverage.

While Hanafin was breaking the news in Dublin, it was already common knowledge in Donegal. In fact, John McAteer, the editor of the Tirconaill Tribune, had gone to press the previous day with the story on his front page. McAteer further reported that the Tánaiste and TD for Donegal South-West, Mary Coughlan, had met with concerned constituents on the previous Saturday. They said "they were delighted with the outcome" of their discussions.

Spokespersons for the Down Syndrome Association "were left to understand there would be a U-turn". But back in Dublin two days later, Hanafin stood firm on the subject of the disability allowance cut. Despite a severe grilling from Sean O'Rourke on the News at One, Mary was not for turning.

A different story to what Tánaiste Coughlan had told the folks back home in Donegal on Saturday. The paper went on to report that the Down Syndrome Association received confirmation of that U-turn on Wednesday. Although at this stage, there was still no statement from the Minister in charge.

"They were informed by Fianna Fáil deputies at Leinster House that the Government had rolled over on proposed cuts for those with special needs and agreement had been reached with Minister Mary Hanafin."

The resolution of the matter might have remained a secret between Fianna Fáil deputies and voters in the newspaper's circulation area of Fanad and Millford had it not been for Fine Gael TD Joe McHugh, who saw an advance copy of the Tirconaill Tribune and brought it to Enda Kenny's attention.

Enda, much to Tánaiste Coughlan's irritation, raised the newspaper story in the Dáil on Thursday morning.

At the same time, Taoiseach Brian Cowen was on the other side of St Stephen's Green in the Conrad Hotel, talking tough at the prestigious Economist "Business Roundtable" conference. He insisted his Government would not shirk spending cuts.

But a couple of hours later, after the Fine Gael leader had rumbled Tánaiste Coughlan for speaking out of turn, Mary Hanafin had to rush off again to the News at One, this time to announce the climbdown.

She said she had discussed the situation last week with the Minister for Finance, and brought her proposal to Cabinet on Wednesday.

But of course, the Tánaiste's local confidants could have told them what they wanted to know last weekend.

Is this what the Taoiseach meant when he said "the Government needs allies in communicating the changed circumstances" to the public? Or has he worked out that his Government can't be let out to do it on their own?

The wise unwashed

In these difficult times, we must all do our patriotic duty. A touch of belt-tightening here, a spot of pay-freezing there and a little bit of self-sacrifice on the side.

Unfortunately, much to the Government's exasperation, it seems ordinary people are just too thick to comprehend the gravity of the situation. They don't understand how bad things are, and that if tough measures are not implemented immediately the whole country will go down the tubes.

At least that's been the Government's explanation for the post-Budget ructions, repeated again on Thursday by Brian Cowen with his trademark man-of-the-people clarity: "We have seen already how resistant public opinion is, firstly to comprehension of the new paradigm in which we have to operate; and secondly, to the rationale behind the decisions we have had to take."

Despite the Taoiseach's best efforts, many ordinary people understand perfectly the requirements of the new paradigm, but argue they have a right to question the rationale behind the first line of cuts and why certain sections of the community were initially targeted.

Happily, not everyone is as blind to the nation's difficulties as the great unwashed.

Greens in the blitz

Hearty congratulations to the Greens, who are leading by example and making whatever adjustments are necessary in the national interest.

Party members received an e-mail on Tuesday outlining what they have to do to help the war effort.

"It has been decided to drop the black tie aspect of the National Ball on Saturday. It was never intended to be strict about it anyway but in the current climate of serious cutbacks it would be seen as inappropriate.

"The event goes ahead of course. We could all do with a diversion for a few hours and the party certainly needs the funds more than ever.

"Our finances unfortunately reflect those of the rest of the country at the moment.

"Apologies if this late change of plan causes inconvenience."

Ah yes, the spirit of the blitz will be alive and well this evening at the Lord Bagenal Hotel in Carlow when the selfless Greens, minus cummerbunds and monocles, sit down to their five course meal.

Blueshirt bash

Fine Gael had a big bash in the Members' Restaurant on Wednesday night to say farewell to Gerry Naughton, the party's outgoing political director.

Following the result of the weekend's opinion poll putting them ahead of Fianna Fáil, the mood was buoyant. Gerry, who did the job for nearly six years, mused that things have been looking very good of late, and the most recent results bode extremely well for the future. "If Liverpool keep going like this, they might even win the league this year."

After speeches and presentations, the party repaired to the Trocadero Restaurant for further fun and high jinks.

Speaking of which, the Blueshirts, like the Greens, are having their president's dinner tonight. Unlike the Greens, there is no dress code. About 1,200 guests are expected to join Enda Kenny in the City West Hotel for the occasion. After the results of the opinion poll appeared, there was a last minute rush for tables. That would be the political tarts, who - should the figures hold up in the long term - want to be able to say they turned up when the party was neither popular nor profitable.

Ballagh 'clogged'

Artist Robert Ballagh got a big award in Denmark earlier in the week.

Does this mean he is now a Painter and Decorated? He received the strangely titled international "Clog Award" from the People's Movement against the EU (Denmark) during a ceremony in the small town of Roslev. This is the third time Ireland has been given a Clog.

Frank Keoghan from the National Platform got one in 2001 after the Irish No vote in the Nice Treaty. Patricia McKenna of the Greens got a Clog the previous year for securing a court ruling guaranteeing equal treatment for both sides of the argument in a referendum.

"This year we give it to Robert Ballagh from The People's Movement after the Irish No to the Lisbon Treaty" said Jesper Morville, chairman of the International Committee of the People's Movement.

Meanwhile, back home, the post Budget Flip-Flop award has been won by the Government.

Stiff shoulder

Conor Lenihan can't help getting himself into trouble. He means no harm, but sometimes his natural exuberance gets the better of him.

This week's fascist jibe at Leo Varadkar, allegedly followed by a Nazi salute, is a perfect example of why Conor has the nickname "Crazy Horse". On his way into Leinster House on Thursday, the day after his latest episode, Lenihan passed a number of journalists on the stairs.

"Sorry lads, I can't shake hands with you now. I'm like John McCain, I can't raise my arm above my shoulder."

Charlie huffs

These last few weeks have been very trying for Fianna Fáil backbenchers. Conor's party colleague and constituency rival in Dublin South West, Charlie O'Connor, tried an interesting diversionary tactic on Thursday evening when he came under fire on the education cuts.

Charlie, aka Mr Tallaght, was on Today FM's Last Word show and getting a bit of a battering from his other constituency colleague, Fine Gael education spokesman Brian Hayes. So what did he do? He attacked parents and teachers for using their children as human shields.

"I would hope that somebody would make the point that asking children to contact their local TD - adult males - is not appropriate. I don't believe it is," huffed Charlie.

Apparently, he got a lot of phone calls and e-mails from children as young as nine or 10, and thinks it "totally inappropriate" that they should be given the number of their local TD and told to ring them up.

Children are always very tricky customers.

Fianna Fáil's deputy Peter Kelly was bravely holding the line in the face of a baying crowd at a protest in Longford last weekend. Poor Peter was getting it in the neck for just about everything from medical cards to education cuts, the big issue being the closure of Longford barracks.

He showed more backbone than some of this political superiors as he defended the cuts.

But at one point, he glanced down and saw a seven-year-old boy looking up at him dolefully. Apparently the boy got a hold of the microphone and said: "Please Mr Kelly. Don't take Santa Claus away!" At which point, Peter probably thought he might have been better off sticking with his lounge bar and undertaking business.

It's even better than the placard of the week, brought to the Dáil from Longford: "Don't Send our Daddies to Athlone."

Chad, yes. But Athlone . . .

Batt's backbone

Another man with backbone during the week was Minister Batt O'Keeffe, who remained resolute in the face of fierce resistance to his education cuts from protesting teachers, parents and Opposition deputies.

The affable Batt waited a long time to get a ministerial portfolio, and there was much interest in how he would cope with the pressure of taking over education at a time of financial cutbacks. However, he has emerged as the strong, silent hero of Brian Cowen's wobbly batch of newly elevated Ministers.

Fianna Fáil backbenchers have been very impressed by O'Keeffe's handling of the situation. The Minister for Education was in China when the Budget backlash began, but he hit the ground running on his return. Unlike some, he has been unwavering in his command of his brief.

Bacik's photo-op

Sunday, December 14th, 2008, marks the 90th anniversary of the 1918 general election, when women first got the vote in Ireland and the first woman MP or TD (Constance Markiewicz) was elected.

Independent Senator Ivana Bacik has decided to celebrate the anniversary by organising a special lunch in Leinster House for all former and current women TDs and Senators. Ivana has had an enthusiastic response from former members, and expects a large attendance for the lunch on Tuesday, December 9th.

Ceann Comhairle John O'Donoghue has given his permission for a photograph to be taken in the Dáil chamber of the current and former deputies.

"This photograph would illustrate in a visual and very striking way the numbers of women who have been elected to the Oireachtas over the years. Although nothing similar has been carried out in Ireland before, it was done in the Portuguese parliament some years ago and I understand that the photograph made a very powerful impact there," says Ivana.

Civil exchanges

Sometimes you have to wonder - this Dáil exchange comes from Wednesday:

Deputy James Bannon (FG): "Was a precedent set in the House yesterday when the arrogant and untruthful Minister for Defence . . ."

An Ceann Comhairle: "Hold on a second now."

Bannon: ". . . refused to meet Opposition Oireachtas Members? He gave two fingers to the Army wives yesterday and pulled the shutters on Longford."

Minister Willie O'Dea: "Deputy Bannon flunked it. You flunked it. You are just a straw man. You are just a clown. Go away and resign yourself. Or else take a Valium."

Bannon: "I want to know why the Minister behaved in an arrogant manner. He should be ashamed of himself, the way he treated the people of my county yesterday."

Minister Martin Cullen: "Take a chill pill or else take some Prozac."

An Ceann Comhairle: "I call on Deputy Shane McEntee."

Bannon: "I must also comment on the two Government deputies in my constituency for their arrogance and complete contempt for the people of Longford."

Ceann Comhairle: "I call on Deputy McEntee."

McEntee: "I'm half afraid of Deputy Bannon."

Bannon: "Shame on you all. Shame on the Fianna Fáil Government."

An Ceann Comhairle: "Deputy Bannon, allow Deputy McEntee."

McEntee: "Cheann Comhairle, he'll hit me if I stand up."

Bannon: "Shame on you all again. The door was banged in the face of Senator Nicky McFadden and myself yesterday."

Minister O'Dea: "He flunked it. He didn't even dare come up and see me."

An Ceann Comhairle: "Deputy Bannon, I must ask you to resume your seat."

Bannon: "Shame on you all on that side of the House."

Minister O'Dea: "You flunked it. You're just a straw man."

Deputy Tom Hayes (FG): "Leave him alone."

Bannon: "Tell the truth, Willie."

An Ceann Comhairle: "Deputy Bannon . . ."

McEntee: "I think I'll move away from Deputy Bannon."

Charlie Flanagan (FG): "You thought Chad was bad, Willie."

P. J. Sheehan (FG): "Willie, get your gun."

And then they all started talking about slurry and snow . . .