Leo heads off FF ambush with pre-emptive dash to the Áras

Once Máire Whelan’s appointment was rubberstamped, Micheál was shooting blanks

Máire Whelan has her appointment to the  Court of Appeal rubberstamped by President Michael D Higgins, as crafty Leo looks on. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Máire Whelan has her appointment to the Court of Appeal rubberstamped by President Michael D Higgins, as crafty Leo looks on. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

The Taoiseach had a problem last weekend.

He acted very decisively – with indecent haste, to be more precise – by bundling the former attorney general off to Áras an Uachtaráin first thing Monday morning so the President could rubberstamp her appointment to the Court of Appeal.

Maire Whelan was officially “eminent” by the time Michael D toddled off for his elevenses.

From then on, and despite any amount of Opposition protests about the manner in which the appointment was made, the matter was decided.

It was an ugly way to do it, and did no favours to Whelan, but Leo Varadkar got the job done. Perfectly in order.

Although, for all his government’s protestations, the process wasn’t near perfect enough. Otherwise, why the rush to get the new Judicial Appointments Bill into law before the summer break?

There was a touch of St Augustine about Leo’s handling of a situation bequeathed him by his predecessor: “Lord, make me pure, but not yet.”

And it was entertaining to hear scandalised Fine Gael TDs working themselves up into a lather of righteous indignation over the shocking attempts by Micheál Martin and others to “cast aspersions” on an eminent judge. (And the ink hardly dry on her warrant of appointment, thanks to their leader.)

When Leo became Taoiseach just over a week ago, he inherited Enda Kenny’s legitimate decision to appoint Máire Whelan to the Court of Appeal, but was also left to deal with the utterly slipshod way in which it was done. He was going to take flak one way or the other over the unorthodox manner of the appointment, so he decided to put on a lid on the simmering controversy. Hence the dash to the Áras.

As a result, “Don’t hit us, you can’t hit us, you’re not allowed hit us with an eminent baby judge in our arms!” became the Government’s mantra for the week.

The only reason they could say this was because crafty Leo saw to it that Máire’s eminence was conveniently enshrined on the day before the Dáil reconvened for business.

This made their subsequent outrage over aspersions being cast on a serving judge about as credible as screaming “don’t speak ill of the dead” on Tuesday, having carried out the murder on Monday.

Shock of the new Taoiseach for FF leader

Micheál Martin didn’t enjoy a good week.

The Fianna Fáil leader found himself in an unfamiliar situation, dealing with a new Taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael.

He didn’t cope well with the arrival of Leo Varadkar. People often find it difficult to deal with change at work.

Micheál has been a TD for 28 years. For more than half that time, as a senior Government Minister and then leader of the Opposition, he has known only one leader of Fine Gael: Enda Kenny. For the last six years, the two men have been going head-to-head with other at Leaders’ Questions in the Dáil.

Now, Enda is gone. In comes a much-heralded young buck with a reputation for straight-talking and rubbing people up the wrong way. He’s a bit of a know-all too, by all accounts. And his recent election to the party leadership seems to have energised his colleagues.

Micheál needs to neutralise the threat posed by this newcomer; flex some political muscle to reassure his own troops. Fianna Fáil, after all, is keeping Leo in power with a minority support deal.

Micheál did what is required of a good Leader of the Opposition by being first to point out that Fine Gael mishandled the way it appointed the outgoing attorney general to the Court of Appeal. He caused real embarrassment to the incoming Taoiseach by raising the spectre of cronyism and stroke politics, making his first week in the job something of a nightmare.

Micheál left his calling-card and Leo had to take notice.

But he couldn’t walk away, even though once Whelan was appointed there was nothing he could do to change that. His subsequent huffing and puffing in the Dáil, accompanied by a parade of TDs across the airwaves making veiled threats about toppling the Government, looked too needy. As usual, Jim O’Callaghan was wheeled out in his traditional role as The Voice of Reason, although he only made matters worse.

Being a senior counsel from Dublin Bay South doesn’t cut much ice with the backbenchers. He might be your only man on the finer points of jurisprudence, but Gentleman Jim will have to get in touch with his inner sleeveen if he wants to progress further in Fianna Fáil.

TDs are whispering darkly about being led up and down the hill by Micheál (the Grand old Duke of Cork) and Gentleman Jim, with backroom svengalis Deirdre Gillane and Pat McPartland egging the pair of them on.

There is talk of printing posters and planning for selection conventions.

Perhaps the fractious start to relations between the Taoiseach and the Leader of Fianna Fáil will shock both men into realising they don’t want an accidental election. Some FFers were joking that Leo and Micheál weren’t only in Brussels on Thursday on Brexit-related business, but that they were also undergoing relationship counselling off-campus.

Leo hosts a fence-mending party – but where are the biccies?

After their leadership election, attempts at fence-mending in Fine Gael are proceeding – with mixed results.

The Taoiseach is doing his bit next week by hosting a party for “the Class of 2016” in his office. Leo put several ambitious noses out of joint when he said he wouldn’t be promoting any TDs elected for the first time last year. This pragmatic excuse for disappointing supporters who may have nursed hopes for advancement meant his scope for picking women for his team was severely curtailed.

Josepha Madigan, Maria Bailey, Hildegarde Naughton and the fearless Kate O’Connell were immediately off the list.

One assumes there will be some nice little nibbles to eat. Although, in the Varadkar era, it’s not guaranteed. Leo is big into fitness – his usual order in the Members’ Restaurant is an egg-white omelette. We hear this has resulted in a dearth of biscuits at meetings in Government buildings. People are not happy.

“There’s no doubt about it but there is a major clampdown on biscuits,” a Government TD told us yesterday. “There hasn’t been any direct order from Leo, but a view has been expressed.”

And it’s not that long since Leo was the can of Coke and Haribo king of Leinster House.

It should be an interesting night on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Marcella Corcoran Kennedy, who was doing great work as a Minister of State in the Department of Health, was unfortunate to lose her portfolio. But she was in the Dáil for Leaders’ Questions this week as always, unlike Dara Murphy, who was demoted from his job as junior minister for Europe and wasn’t present in the chamber for Leo’s first two outings. He told his local paper that he lost out due to “anti-Cork” bias.

Marcella got a round of applause at the FG Parliamentary Party meeting when she expressed her full support for the new Taoiseach.

Her colleague Peter Fitzpatrick from Louth, who was also on the Coveney side in the leadership election, was more worried at the meeting about losing out because he backed the wrong horse. He arrived with all guns blazing, ready to take on his constituency colleague Fergus O’Dowd and the Taoiseach because he reckoned they were about to insult him.

Peter, who lives in Dundalk, heard Fergus talk on local radio LMFM about his disappointment at not getting a ministerial role while stressing he is still one of the Taoiseach’s biggest supporters. To this end, he was delighted Leo has agreed to open his new constituency office in Drogheda.

We hear the Dundalk man took great umbrage at the news. “He was raging at the meeting, saying North Louth was being ignored in favour of South Louth and they were trying to push him back into the Cooley mountains because he backed Simon. The argument got a bit hot and heavy and Fergus and Peter ended up having a row outside in the corridor afterwards,” said a backbencher.

The Taoiseach, taken aback by Fitzpatrick’s upset, told him not to worry and promised to visit “Cooley, Blackrock and Dundalk”.

The Louth TDs shook hands in the chamber the next day. At least there will be one soft border in Louth.

So all fences are being mended. No need for the new regime to worry about Simon Coveney’s election team holding a debriefing session last week with chief advisor Ciarán Conlon to analyse their campaign, where it went wrong and what they could do better in the future.

In case another leadership election happens . . .

Independent’s day at Killarney golf outing

Hartyest congratulations to Independent TD Michael Harty, who was the toast of the Oireachtas Golf Society last night following his stunning hole-in-one at the Captain’s Day outing in Kerry.

The GP from Clare carded an ace on the difficult par 3 sixth at the Killeen open championship course in Killarney, stealing the limelight from big-hitters such as EU Commissioner Phil Hogan, Senator Paddy Burke and former Labour TD Lorraine Higgins.

It was an extra bonus for Senator Paul Coghlan, who pulled out all the stops to make his Captain’s Prize competition at his local club a day to remember.

Hell’s bells: Ministers locked out in all-party cock-up

The Dáil division bells malfunctioned early on Thursday afternoon, causing panic and confusion in the Members’ Bar. When it stops ringing, TDs have two minutes to get into the chamber for a vote before the doors are locked.

The first of a series of divisions was about to take place and deputies finishing their lunch knew they had plenty of time to nip across the corridor to the chamber entrance opposite the bar before the cut-off point.

“People were stuffing sandwiches into their mouth and finishing their tea, ready to run once the bell stopped,” recalls Mattie McGrath. “It was still ringing when Denis Naughten looked up at the screen and saw the Ceann Comhairle standing, ready to take the vote. There was an almighty scatter, Ministers and everything, but we couldn’t get in.”

Naughten, along with Shane Ross, Paul Kehoe, Andrew Doyle and John Paul Phelan, were among the Ministers locked out, while Sinn Féin’s Brian Stanley and Fianna Fáil’s Timmy Dooley made it an all-party cock-up.

Because the seating allocation hasn’t been finalised yet for the new Ministers, TDs didn’t vote electronically last week, doing the old-fashioned time-consuming walk through the lobbies instead. One early voter left through the ground-floor door beside the bar.

“We charged in like sheep through a gate. A few officials tried to stop us but we were gone and up the steps like Cromwell’s troops.”