Willie O’Dea was all at sea. Even his moustache looked flummoxed.
Slowly the former Fianna Fáil minister rose from his seat in the back row of the Dáil chamber, a puzzled expression on his face. He wasn’t the first TD on Tuesday struggling to work out whether the Government is actually going to build a motorway between Cork and Limerick or just keep talking about it.
If fancy announcements were asphalt and strong commitments were concrete, the long awaited south-west superhighway would have been up and running years ago and probably in need of an upgrade by now.
It could be said that Willie was larding it on with a trowel. Or trolling the Coalition of which he is a reluctant member
And still the promises keep coming and the talk goes on. The mythical M20 motorway got its traditional run-out at Monday’s launch of the revised National Development Plan (NDP). Not only will it be constructed as soon as possible but more money than ever will be available to fund it and more time allocated to get the work completed.
And if the weather holds up and with the best will in the world and the help of God, if everyone gets a good run at it the road will be delivered, you know, sometime soon.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney took Leaders' Questions on Tuesday because not one of four who launched and stood behind the new plan in Cork the day before was available to stand up and stand behind the new plan the day after in the Dáil.
The Taoiseach (in Slovenia), Tánaiste, Green Party leader and Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath all had previous commitments.
Work commitments, as opposed to the confusing cascade of capital commitments in the NDP.
O’Dea was extremely concerned about the future of one essential piece of infrastructure promised in the much-vaunted plan: the proposed Cork-Limerick motorway.
“I prefer to say the Limerick-Cork motorway,” he said loftily.
It’s always been Limerick First for Willie who entered the Dáil in 1982 and has held his seat ever since. You don’t achieve that without knowing never to cede precedence to Cork ahead of Limerick.
The veteran TD looked nonplussed and sounded very exasperated as he tried to explain his difficulty to his Coalition colleague Coveney, representing the city at the other end of the mythical motorway.
“What I wanted to ask you, basically, is, you know,” stuttered barrister O’Dea, normally a very skilled communicator. “Because I’m as wise today as I was yesterday.”
Sighing heavily, head bowed, eyes closed, he ploughed on with his question about the motorway, tortured by terrible feelings of doubt and uncertainty.
“You know, what I want is an assurance that this is going to actually happen. And if it is to happen, could you give us – I know you can’t give us an exact date – but could you give us…”
Willie clapped a despairing hand to his head.
“Could you give us a clue?” he spluttered.
It could be said that Willie was larding it on with a trowel. Or trolling the Coalition of which he is a reluctant member.
“I mean, could you give us your opinion as to what year it might happen?” he implored, distractedly scratching his head. “Because, you know, I am inundated with queries from business organisations and communities down in Limerick.”
Then he broached the appalling vista summoned up earlier in the proceedings by Sinn Féin's Donnchadh O'Laoghaire and Labour leader Alan Kelly.
“Can you also tell me is it possible that this could be dropped entirely?”
As with O'Laoghaire and Kelly, O'Dea was aware of comments from the Greens signalling a lack of enthusiasm for major road-building projects. Nothing is "guaranteed", they are saying. Local authorities will have to vie with each other in "healthy competition" to get a piece of the funding pie, declared Transport Minister Eamon Ryan.
Coveney batted away their reasonable reservations with repeated assurances that the Coalition was fully behind the new motorway.
So can we take it the Government will build the M20? asked O’Laoghaire, ominously reminding the Minister that they are both from Cork, and Leesiders are watching this situation very closely. Because what is there now “is no better than a boreen in parts”.
Yes or no? Simple question. Not just a perhaps or a “definitely maybe”.
Well, of course, Simon says he definitely wants the motorway.
So it will be built then?
The Minister was very clear about being very clear about the M20 going ahead, although he also slipped in that it could be called the N20. But this has nothing to do with a possible downgrading of what might or might not be constructed in the end when all the “permitting systems” have been done and planning begins in earnest.
There was no mention of any N20 (which would denote a national road instead of a motorway) in the development plan in 2018, pointed out Alan Kelly.
There was too, insisted Simon.
Nope, Kelly told him. That significant little qualification only appeared in this week’s revised document.
Trust us; everything is going to be fine, soothed Coveney. How many times did he have to say it? Perhaps he was trying to convince himself.
One way or the other, he never gave the straight answer.
To build or not to build? That is the awkward question.
But lookit. The lovely big blueprint unveiled on Monday doesn’t really mean anything anyway.
“If a project is not in the National Development Plan,” Simon explained to the now slack-jawed TDs, that “does that mean it is not going to be built or it’s not going to happen? No. That is not necessarily the case.”
So it seems some, but not all of the projects outlined in the policy document will be implemented. While projects which aren’t included in the plan could be given the green light for go.
We’re off now for a lie down.
No wonder Willie’s moustache was flummoxed.