Dáil Éireann is well used to the tiresome “Dem up in Dublin” guff regularly peddled by the Roaring Independents. Frequent eruptions from the likes of Mattie McGrath and the Healy-Raes are a familiar part of the parliamentary fabric.
They are let get on with it, for the most part. Senior government politicians know by now that rising to the bait only earns them a cameo role as the stage villain in a production carefully engineered for local consumption.
Last year, Labour’s Duncan Smith lost the rag after a provocation too many when the Healy-Rae brothers said his party had no understanding of the lives of working people such as carpenters and plumbers.
“I’m absolutely disgusted because it hit me personally. Usually what they say is water off a duck’s back to most or all of us in this House,” Smith said.
“Well, I’m the son of carpenter, I’m not the son of Fianna Fáil privilege,” the Dublin Fingal TD fumed at the time. “I’m not going to be lectured on understanding workers, I don’t have to put on a political costume and a caricature to pretend I’m working class like they do.”
He was angry. This was not manufactured outrage for the sake of column inches.
On Tuesday, it was the turn of Leo Varadkar to call out one of these richly minted sons of the soil. On this occasion, it was millionaire class versus middle class after Michael Healy-Rae embarked on a rant which went beyond the usual histrionics, crossing from the robustly political to the personal and offensive.
It wasn’t a case of water off a duck’s back. The Tánaiste’s anger was instant. His outrage was not manufactured.
MHR is a superb communicator, but on this occasion – unwittingly or otherwise – his words, quite clearly, caused deep offence.
If Healy-Rae were a mallard he would have drowned long ago
When the seething “Fyne Gale” leader instantly pulled him up on his choice of language, a wide-eyed Healy-Rae responded by looking mildly affronted at being challenged. He seemed oblivious to Varadkar’s unusually intense response, the anger evident in his voice and body language.
This markedly sharp reaction did not prompt Mattie McGrath or Danny Healy-Rae, seated on either side of the picture of pained innocence that was Michael, to perhaps whisper a quick word to their colleague while he luxuriated in his perceived victimhood. The penny didn’t drop with them either – a smiling Mattie appeared to be enjoying the theatre while Danny looked vacantly into the middle distance.
It all kicked off when the Kerry TD accused Varadkar, standing in for the Taoiseach at Leaders’ Questions, of not answering a question put to him earlier by Mary Lou McDonald. The Tánaiste said he believed the record would reflect that he gave a substantive reply.
“The fact, deputy, that you didn’t like it or understand it is more a reflection on you than it is on me, quite frankly.”
Healy-Rae took grave offence at this. For a TD who knows how to dish it out in the chamber – and frequently does, he has a remarkably thin-skin when the tables are turned. Water off a duck’s back? If he were a mallard he’d have drowned long ago.
How dare Leo Varadkar insult him, a simple Kerryman of enormous wealth who is schtruggling to rub along with nothing but the largest property portfolio of any TD in the Dáil and a few aul petrol pumps outside the supermarket to make ends meet.
He, Michael Healy-Rae, understands the plain people of Ireland.
“The people can look at you and listen to you, or they can look at me and listen to me and let the people decide who they think is more in tune with what the people of Ireland require,” he told the Tánaiste, voice rising in intensity.
“Because when I hear some of the nonsense that you come out with, my goodness, you’re no man to look down your nose at me as if I was doing something that you stood up on top of. I am elected here every bit as good as you are, and you know, maybe be a lot better than you.”
‘A bit of a big shot’
Remind us, Michael. Who was doing the looking down here?
No. He is the normal and relatable one. “I wouldn’t dare to look down my nose at you or anyone else because I don’t do that. But maybe you do because you’re a bit of a big shot,” said successful businessman Michael, who is a more than a bit of a big shot. And that’s not a maybe.
“But like I say, off with you to the airy fairies and see how far ’twill get you.”
And that’s the phrase that upset the Tánaiste, one of a small number of gay TDs and Senators in the Oireachtas.
MHR came to the end of his massive whinge. “But you can be sure of one thing, it’s not a nice thing to look down your nose at me and say what you said to me a while ago. Not nice.”
Those words mattered to Leo Varadkar.
The other stuff about caving in to the Green Party and following its agenda so he could become taoiseach, even if it mean denying people “the right to live” because he will do “anything for power” at any cost was standard political combat.
Leo was quick to his feet.
“It’s just not nice what you said to me either, deputy, just there, quite frankly,” he began. “Reflect on it and think about it.”
A few strangulated yelps arose from across the floor. There was no overflow involvement for other deputies, who listened in silence.
“Just think about what you said. Ok?” snapped the Tánaiste, arm raised, pointing angrily at Healy-Rae as he managed to raise a feeble protest.
“But…no, think about what you said. Think about what you said,” insisted Varadkar, voice wavering as he spoke. Healy-Rae tried to interrupt.
“No. No. No. Reflect on it. Think about it. Come back here tomorrow or the next day and take it back if you want to,” he continued, speaking slowly, deliberately, very pointedly inviting the TD to consider what he had said.
He may have been thoughtless, but Healy-Rae was out of order. He should apologise
The Tánaiste continued, talking very quickly, stumbling over the words, incensed. “Deputy, the truth is you look down on me.”
MHR did a double take under his flat cap. Moi? How dare Leo Varadkar.
“You think that because I’m from Dublin, because I’m middle class, because I don’t talk the way you talk and I have the accent that I have that somehow I don’t understand real people. But you’re wrong deputy. I’m elected just as much as you are. Everyone in this house has a mandate. We have a mandate because real people elect us and that’s precisely because we’re standing here.”
The Tánaiste gave him as good as he got. Healy-Rae said nothing.
Leo followed up with a haymaker.
Didn’t Michael Healy-Rae turn down the chance of a ministry? “I was there in 2016.”
But instead “the truth is you’d rather come in here and make personalised digs about people in Government than actually have to make hard decisions that might cost you a few votes.”
He may have been thoughtless, but Healy-Rae was out of order. He should apologise.