It’s back down the hill for the Grand Old Duke of Cork
Dáil Sketch: The FF-ers rattled their swords, but their leader was forced to retreat – for now
On the warpath: Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin strode into the Dáil with the air of a man spoiling for a fight over the appointment of former attorney general Máire Whelan to the Court of Appeal. Photograph: Eric Luke
Ohhh, the Grand Old Duke of Cork/ He had 36 strong men (and six women)/ He marched them up to the top of the hill/ And he marched them all over the shop/ And he marched them down again. . . Micheál Martin seems stranded on that blasted hill. And the troops are getting restless.
It’s been a case of once more with feeling for the Fianna Fáil leader this week. Time to lead another march to the summit of high dudgeon and give out about the view. Micheál strode into the Dáil on Wednesday with the air of a man spoiling for a fight. His Soldiers of Destiny arrayed around him, keen to take umbrage. Fighting fizzbags in waiting, glaring over at the new Taoiseach as their Grand Old Duke of Cork launched his assault. He didn’t have it all his own way. Far from it. This drove his Fianna Fáil braves into a fury.
It was quite fun to watch. That old Lance-Corporal Jones catchphrase from Dad’s Army came to mind as some of Micheál’s more bellicose scufflers arrived with fixed bayonets only to find Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s cutting condescension too much to take: “They don’t like it up ’em!”
On Tuesday, Micheál had been similarly combative in his first attempt to draw blood from his new rival across the chamber floor.
It seemed like an attempt by the Fianna Fáil leader to show Leo Varadkar who is the real boss in the uneasy parliamentary alliance between the two main parties. Fine Gael may be in Government, but they are in power through the good offices of Fianna Fáil and that party’s minority support. They can pull the plug whenever they choose and Leo needs to know this.
Martin’s chosen battleground was the manner in which the outgoing attorney general was appointed to a vacant judicial position with unseemly haste during the changeover between departing taoiseach Enda Kenny and his successor. He put up a good fight until his anxiety over registering a palpable hit on his new opponent got the better of him.
What was seen as a personal attack by the fired-up Fianna Fáil boss on the professional ability of Máire Whelan, freshly appointed to the Court of Appeal, was immediately pounced upon by Varadkar, who turned what might have been an embarrassing maiden outing at Leaders’ Questions to his advantage.
This opening skirmish dismayed Fianna Fáil. There was talk of unrest in the ranks that night over the way their leader handled the engagement. So he returned a second time for a rematch. Why, he asked Varadkar, was the appointment of Máire Whelan “done secretly and in such a covert manner?”
As he spoke, Micheál seemed tense, his arms folded tightly against his body. Look, he insisted, this isn’t anything personal against the woman in question. But in his opinion, the Government circumvented the law when appointing her. He never wanted to hold Whelan up to comparison against three judges who were appointed by Fianna Fáil governments in recent years, but he had no choice because it was Taoiseach Varadkar who mentioned them.
“I didn’t invite this . . . You brought in the personalities and you named names,” he protested while his troops glared indignantly across at the Fine Gael front bench.
Frances Fitzgerald, the Tánaiste and former minister for justice, looked disgusted with him. She tut-tutted, making comments under her breath to the Taoiseach. Micheál wanted a full discussion in the House because, unlike Judge Whelan, the people appointed by Fianna Fáil didn’t have “any negative tribunal findings hanging over them”. He reminded Leo that he informed him of this during a telephone conversation on Sunday night. The Taoiseach rose to reply.
On the Fine Gael benches, you could sense the tension. Would he be up to the challenge? Could he face down the Fianna Fáil leader? He didn’t come out swinging. Rather, Leo began with a very reasonable tone, saying he would answer any question he wanted to ask on the subject.
A little lecture
He wasn’t concerned about speaking time. But he was concerned at the way aspersions were cast on Máire Whelan the day before. He delivered a little lecture to the increasingly fuming Fianna Fáilers, asking to be “mindful” of the separation of powers between parliament and the judiciary and “mindful” about making allegations about his Government undermining the judiciary.
Then, ever so sweetly, Leo magnanimously offered to give Micheál “an opportunity here in this House today to correct and clarify the remarks that you made about the suitability and qualifications of Justice Whelan”.
Across the way, Barry Cowen was fit to explode, growling and yelping with increasing ferocity. “Hear! Hear!” boomed Frances Fitz. “Take the opportunity to withdraw it!”
“A bit more transparency from you would not go amiss in all of this,” snapped Micheál. She looked highly insulted. Everything went downhill for the Grand Old Duke of Cork after that.
“You tried to create the impression that there were precedents with this issue, and there weren’t. It was dishonest and disingenuous,” he said angrily to Leo. “You should be much more straight about this and come clean and say it was badly handled.”
It wasn’t like he hadn’t warned the Taoiseach in that phone call. “Withdraw your remark!” shouted new junior minister John Paul Phelan to Micheál.
“Who are the three judges?” roared Barry.
“You’re undermining the judiciary,” cried Minister for Health Simon Harris.
Fianna Fáil’s Timmy Dooley got stuck in. “No, you’ve undermined the judiciary.”
Losing speaking time
Independent Tommy Broughan protested that the other parties were losing speaking time because of this row. He was ignored.
Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy howled at the incandescent Fianna Fáilers. Timmy Dooley waved his hands in the air and loudly shushed him. Whereupon the Taoiseach confirmed he held a phone conversation with his Opposition counterpart where he questioned Máire Whelan’s credentials. He finished by landing a haymaker on Martin: “You also said you wouldn’t go there publicly.”
Martin protested weakly, a thin smile on his face, shaking his head.
“Yes. Yes,” insisted Leo.
“That’s not true.”
“You did go there publicly and doing so, in my view, deputy Martin, was a mistake. It was wrong. Perhaps you didn’t mean to go there.”
Cue outrage from across the floor.
Thomas Byrne was raging. “You disregarded the rule of law!”
The Taoiseach appeared very calm and relaxed. You could see his TDs relaxing too. Maybe Micheál said what he said in the Dáil on Tuesday “in the heat of argument”.
Vicious olive branch
Extending a vicious olive branch, he murmured, “We’ve all been responsible for that in our time.”
Nonetheless, in speaking as he did, the Fianna Fáil leader cast aspersions on someone who is now a judge of the Court of Appeal. At this point, Seán Fleming was shouting repeatedly: “Why did you not reappoint her as attorney general? Why did you sack her?”
John Paul Phelan was beside himself. “He didn’t sack her.”
“Deputies,” pleaded the Ceann Comhairle. “Please behave with a little decorum.”
Leo quietly pushed his claim that Micheál “specifically” cast aspersions on the outgoing AG. He vehemently denied this. Thomas Byrne was roaring about strokes. The Taoiseach gave Micheál another chance to withdraw his remarks.
“For what?” spluttered the incandescent Byrne.
The exchanges came to an acrimonious close. Varadkar moved on, not a bother on him. If things continue like this, it won’t end well for the Government and its arrangement with Fianna Fáil. At this rate, The Grand Old Duke of Cork might finally go over the top.