Miriam Lord: A pyrrhic victory for the Roaring Socialist Ruralists

Mattie McGrath and Richard Boyd Barrett couple up to force a vote on NMH motion

On a night of rampant political promiscuity in Leinster House, two Green Party TDs shacked up with Sinn Féin for a quickie vote and broke their leader’s hearts.

Mattie McGrath and Richard Boyd Barrett tumbled into bed together for the first time while sworn opposites suddenly began hooking up all over the place like eager participants in some weird mismatch-making festival .

McGrath did it for the cheap thrill of upsetting the virtuous Eamon Ryan. Boyd Barrett just couldn’t resist the dangling promise of an easy protest vote.

And they didn’t even hate themselves afterwards.

Wednesday night’s Coalition of Contradiction, an unlikely alliance between the members of Solidarity/People Before Profit and the Rural Independent Group, proved the old saying that politics is the farce of the possible. Or something like that.

The lengthy preamble to the vote on a Sinn Féin motion calling for full public ownership of the National Maternity Hospital site was much more eventful than the procedure itself – an Opposition exercise in squeezing every last bit of mileage from a political opportunity rapidly running out of road.

The Cabinet nailed down the hospital deal on Tuesday and the Government, in its infinite generosity, indicated that Sinn Féin’s motion could sail through unopposed, thus ruling out the need for an irrelevant vote. What would be point now in having one?

“To put one last bit of pressure on the Government,” Boyd-Barrett told RTÉ’s Sharon Ní Bheoláin before Leaders’ Questions at midday, confiding that TDs on his side were willing to give their bodies to the six TDs from the Rural Independent Group so they would have the numbers to force a vote – a situation the Coalition was most anxious to avoid.

Government line

But why were the Roaring Independents so keen to facilitate one when they didn’t support Sinn Féin’s motion and supported the Government line?

Because, as Mattie McGrath told the Dáil the day before, they wanted to register their opposition to any further delay because they “are proud to stand on the record of the good work and reputations of the sisters of many orders and the priests and laity” who served their communities down through the years.

In his opinion, it was only “a phoney debate” anyway. “It’s all about abortion. It’s not about services, it’s about abortion. Frontline and centre, that’s what it’s about and nothing else.”

Strangely, Mattie didn’t mention the Green Party in what some may have seen as a far from phoney desire to force the vote and grab an irresistible opportunity to embarrass the Green enemy and its leader, the Roaring Independents’ nemesis Eamon Ryan.

Two of Ryan’s TDs, publicly wrestling with their consciences, looked set to back the Sinn Féin motion if it went ahead. If Neasa Hourigan and Patrick Costello defied the whip they would almost certainly be suspended from the parliamentary party.

Whereupon the Government almost pulled a fast one by assenting to what amounted to a toothless motion anyway, doing away with the need to hold a vote, which would allow the two conflicted Greens to wriggle off the hook.

The Rural Independents roared into action. Sinn Féin’s motion was so “unnecessary” they now felt obliged to vote on it, Mattie explained on Wednesday. In that case, Richard Boyd Barrett said Solidarity/People Before Profit would gladly couple up with them and make it happen.

They had now drawn Hourigan and Costello out into the open. The Government instructed its TDs to abstain. Neasa and Patrick confirmed they would follow their hearts and vote with Sinn Féin, leaving their party leader with a headache.

Punishment

Neasa defied the whip two years ago and was handed a slap-on-the-wrist withdrawal of speaking rights for two months, serving all but two weeks of her punishment during the summer recess.

Meanwhile, as the morning wore on, news broke that the Green Hornet was trying to hunt down the two renegades in an effort to persuade them to reconsider. Oh, the excitement, until it emerged that the top brass had dispatched Marc Ó Cathasaigh, the Green whip.

And the two TDs confirmed they would be going over the top, whatever the consequences.

The last time Neasa went overboard (junior minister Joe O’Brien abstained on the same housing legislation) party leader Eamon Ryan’s response was swift and brutal.

“You can’t be doing that,” he said sternly, or words to that effect.

“You cannot vote against the Government if you’re in government. You cannot abstain if you’re in government. It weakens our strength, it weakens government, it doesn’t work.”

Then he ruthlessly banned the pair of them from speaking in the Dáil when it was closed.

Harsh disciplinarian Ryan certainly got through to his rebellious backbencher. When asked if the sanctions would deter her from voting against the Government on another occasion, she said: “I hope that this just simply won’t arise again.”

But it has. This time leading to the unprecedented joining of forces between Richard Boyd Barrett and Mattie McGrath and the mingling of socialists and ruralists in the base pursuit of political pleasure.

With the expected loss of two Green TDs from the parliamentary party, leading to the slimmest of working majorities for the Government – on paper at least, the Coalition had now reached the turkeys-voting-for-Christmas stage in its life-cycle.

Jumping first

Have Neasa and Patrick done the right thing by jumping first? (Mattie did it well in advance of Fianna Fáil’s famous meltdown in 2011 and survived to tell the tale from the Independent benches). Will any more Greens join them? Is this the beginning of the end for our meat-and-one-veg coalition? Might Eamon Ryan’s windy Greens scupper Leo’s return to the top spot?

Questions pondered in the corridors on Wednesday, the same questions which are always asked when margins tighten and ambitious TDs begin eyeing the exits. All usually followed by that final rhetorical question: “Will turkeys vote for Christmas?”

The mini-drama brought about by Richard and Mattie’s brief liaison leading to the Green Party’s latest discipline issues took the spotlight off Sinn Féin and its attempts to embarrass Micheál Martin and his Government over its stance on the ownership of the new National Maternity Hospital.

That was never going to happen because the Taoiseach is utterly convinced that the State has “full and outright ownership” of the land on which the hospital will be built. He told Mary Lou McDonald during Leaders’ Questions that he knows and understands why Sinn Féin tabled its motion on ownership. It’s just politics. Trying to keep the Government under pressure.

“I understand it fully,” he said. “We didn’t all come down here in the last cloud.”

He was fascinated by her attempts to “reverse the truth or rename the truth . . . hoping it becomes the truth” thereby “developing a new truism” that 300 years of a lease at €10 per year is somehow not ownership.

But she needn’t try to unsettle him with her ownership motion.

“I’m fully comfortable with what’s happening this evening.”

Which was more than could be said later about Neasa and Patrick, their party and Government colleagues. They voted against the Government. The motion was carried and the result, when it was announced by Leas-Cheann Comhairle Catherine Connolly, was met with overwhelming silence in the chamber.

Neasa Hourigan looked very sad. “In the absolute doldrums,” said one observer. Patrick Costello joked with colleagues, seemingly not a bother on him. Eamon Ryan gazed pensively into the middle distance.

Wisely, he didn’t close his eyes.

And Mattie McGrath, RBB and the new Dáil force of the combined Roaring Socialist Ruralists, having cemented their special bond, were positively glowing.