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Bad week for Government, good week for The Irish Times

Inside Politics: Irish Times wins number of gongs at the Newsbrand awards

This morning we will put what might normally come last first. But from our perspective it’s such good news that it is hard (actually not possible) to resist blowing our own trumpet.

The irreplaceable and irrepressible Miriam Lord has been named as Political Journalist of the Year in the Newsbrand awards for her consistently brilliant writing – she must have more best journalist gongs at this stage than Meryl Streep has Oscars and Baftas.

And, secondly, the Inside Politics podcast hosted by Hugh Linehan has been named the Podcast of the Year in the same awards. Along with Hugh, the core production team of producer Declan Conlon; his production colleagues Suzanne Brennan and Jennifer Ryan; and sound engineer JJ Vernon have ensured the standards are consistently high.

And what can I say of the political team? Not much really, but we do our best; Pat Leahy is almost a co-host, and the rest of us – Jennifer Bray, Jack Horgan-Jones, Marie O’Halloran and I – also pitch in, occasionally with some insight.


While we are at it, congratulations to colleagues Fintan O’Toole, Columnist (Broadsheet) of the Year; Ruadhán MacCormaic (for the amazing Lost Lives series on coronavirus fatalities); Johnny Watterson, Sportswriter (Broadsheet) of the Year; and Rachel Collins and Ciara Kenny for the Saturday magazine, which is Newspaper Magazine of the Year.

The issues that are out, out, out

It hasn’t been a great week for the Government, or for the judiciary for that matter. It reminded us a little of Margaret Thatcher’s curt dismissal of the three solutions for the future of Ireland put forward by the New Ireland Forum in 1984.

Impeachment of Seamus Woulfe. That is out. A ban on takeaway sales of beer in pubs. That is out. A debate on how the unfortunate Woulfe was appointed. That is out.

A core quality of any government is competence: the ability to run the apparatus of State; manage crises as they arise; and overcome the many challenges – large and small – it encounters on the way.

Look, (as the all the best GAA managers say) we are in the middle of a pandemic, and that needs to be managed and contained. And it crowds out everything else both in terms of time and effort. All of that is undoubtedly true.

You sometimes wonder, though, if this Coalition did not have that excuse to Super Glue it together, what would it be up to?

You look for the vision. You look for the fire in the belly. You look for the passion. Those qualities are hard to find.

Micheál Martin has spent his whole political life wanting to be taoiseach. Being taoiseach - best translation: chief - needs more than a rhetorical set piece on the steps of Government Buildings every few weeks – Leo Varadkar has already mined that one and completely exhausted the seam of cliches.

Martin seems to be gambling the reputation of the Government – and more particularly of his party – on the ability to get things done, to get most of the Programme for Government over the line.

So if the Coalition is managing things rather than changing things, competence becomes key. Otherwise questions arise about stability, lack of coherence and indecisiveness.

The last week has not been its best. Indeed, it joins a growing list of so-so weeks for this Coalition.

When Chief Justice Frank Clarke lobbed a political grenade in the direction of Leinster House last week, the Government should have lobbed it straight back whence it came. Instead, it dithered for days over the possibility of impeachment when it was as plain as a pikestaff from day one that turkey was never going to fly. There was an over-deference to the lordships.

The Government should have involved the Opposition at a much earlier stage to listen to its views. After finally bringing other leaders in for consultation on Friday afternoon it took the peremptory decision at Cabinet yesterday to abandon any impeachment process. No wonder the Opposition was up in arms in the Dáil in the afternoon.

The second Out was a derivative of the Woulfe saga. Last Friday, The Irish Times reported three judges had expressed interest in the Supreme Court vacancy that was filled by Woulfe.

The current process of selecting judges is unwieldy and illogical. If you are a barrister or solicitor, you apply for the job through the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board (JAAB). If you are a serving judge and want an extra stripe on the uniform, you make the Attorney General aware of your interest, and the AG informs the Department of Justice. This is what happened here. Woulfe came through the JAAB process. But three judges also expressed an interest, so they had to be considered by the Minister for Justice.

Usually what happens in this process is the Minister discusses all the relevant names with the Taoiseach, the leaders of other Coalition parties and the Attorney General. Then once they agree, one name is brought forward to Cabinet.

But Helen McEntee dispensed with all that. So the nomination of Woulfe was all her own work, she has implied. She never told Micheál Martin, Eamon Ryan or AG Paul Gallagher there were others in the mix, as was the norm.

Did she tell Leo Varadkar? His spokesman would not confirm or deny it. Neither would McEntee. So he might have been told, but when you ask the replies are a bit elusive.

The simple matter is it seems she should have consulted with all the relevant people. And Fianna Fáil and the Greens at a leadership level need to raise a bit of a fuss about these things rather than go on about “great working relationships” and “collegiality”.

And the Third Out?

Well the first two were not of the Government’s own making, and a correct decision was arrived at after all the tarrying.

But the third Out was a sign that some decisions are inspired by Pavlovian responses to fleeting public sentiment.

There was footage at the weekend that showed crowds congregating on the streets of central Dublin, where some pubs were selling takeaway pints.

It became a big thing in the media. But like a lot of things during Covid, perspective went out the window.

The first salient point to report was gardaí were present in the area and reported no breaches of social distancing protocol. What was happening here was what happens in any public park when the weather is good, though granted, the presence of alcohol is always an aggravating factor.

This was an isolated incident. A local incident. It didn’t reflect what was happening outside every pub in the country. There was a similar difficulty in Blackrock, Dublin, the previous weekend.

What was the response? New laws to ban takeaway sales of pints from pubs. And then when the AG said it would not work, a law to impose fines of €80 on those in groups of more than two drinking said takeaways on the streets or in parks.

Pubs have already taken a battering during the pandemic. There is an argument it is better to allow them open as, unlike house parties, they provide a controlled environment.

However, with alcohol involved and with the All Ireland series reaching its zenith over the next few weeks, there are obvious perils to allowing them reopen for indoor business at this moment. But banning takeaway sales (which give them no more than a tiny fraction of normal sales) was just too punitive, and just unjust.

Many on the back benches of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Greens felt that way too. It’s not certain if it was Stephen Donnelly or Micheál Martin who came up with the idea, but it was not inspired, especially when it was withdrawn yesterday.

Out. Out. Take-out. That’s the prevailing message this week.

Best reads

Wonder why Miriam Lord is political journalist of the year? Readtoday's column to find out why.

And here is one of the best politics podcasts so far in 2020 from the award-winning Inside Politics. It's a special edition with guest Ruadhán Mac Cormaic analysing the Woulfe controversy from beginning to end.

Pat Leahy analyses the tensions that have arisen between Government and Nphet.

There's no cancel culture for the great Frank McNally who has another list for us, that of people and things that have been shamed in 2020.

Simon Carswell reports on Bill Clinton's take on how Brexit will impact Ireland. A really fascinating take.



A good Private Members’ Bill from the Labour Party. It’s the Working from Home (Covid-19) Bill that will give those working remotely the right to switch off from work and go off-grid with their communications.

Leaders Questions is at midday.

Later in the afternoon there are statements on preventing crime.


The main event in the Seanad is the Seanad Bill, which reflects the latest effort to reform the Upper House.

There are also statements on recent flooding in the southwest of the country.


It’s a busy day for committees. The picks of the crop are Paschal Donohoe discussing the Finance Bill; a session in the Health Committee on the Children’s National Committee; a discussion on progress on the National Broadband Plan; and the impact of Covid-19 on sport.