Miriam Lord: At last, an end is in sight – the Seanad byelections have passed

It was hard to contain the excitement at the election of two Senators, but we managed

There’s talk of light at the end of the tunnel, but Labour leader Alan Kelly is still stuck in the tunnel, trying to get past a large blockage of vaccine the Government is promising to ‘roll out’ quickly.  Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

There’s talk of light at the end of the tunnel, but Labour leader Alan Kelly is still stuck in the tunnel, trying to get past a large blockage of vaccine the Government is promising to ‘roll out’ quickly. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

“I am very conscious that as we now meet, I suppose the light at the end of the tunnel gets a little bit brighter for people and we are now beginning to consider what life, and what Ireland, will look like once the pandemic passes and once the public emergency is over,” said Mary Lou McDonald, looking on the bright side on the Dáil’s first day back after the Easter break.

She was almost halfway there.

The pandemic might have a while to go yet, but at least the public emergency was tantalisingly close to an end.

All over the country, people counted down the minutes to the moment they could live normal lives again, free from the debilitating worry that Seanad Éireann is two senators short and how long are we expected to cope with this terrible situation without cracking?

Across the Liffey in Leinster House, officials were flying through the ballots. Soon, the nation would be able to breathe again

“It think it is very encouraging that despite everything people have been through in the past year that they still have that sense of hope and that sense of appetite for a better and fairer Ireland,” continued the Sinn Féin leader.

All in this together, recognising the real lift the election of two second-hand senators would bring.

Across the Liffey in Leinster House, officials were flying through the ballots. Soon, the nation would be able to breathe again.

It must have been very difficult for the Taoiseach and Opposition leaders to concentrate on Leaders’ Questions when they knew the Seanad byelection showdown was under way. The event was being live-streamed from the Oireachtas restaurant.

It didn’t break the internet.

As everyone knows, the first count was for a seat on the Agriculture Panel. It was over in the blink of an eye, which isn’t surprising as former Fine Gael senator Maria Byrne romped home with a massive 118 votes. The second one was for a seat on the Industrial and Commercial Panel and it was also completed in jig time, with former Fianna Fáil senator Gerry Horkan coasting to victory with a landslide 114 votes.

Massive change

It was a day of massive change for Irish politics. Maria, who lost her seat last year, regaining it this year; Gerry, who lost his seat last year, regaining it this year.

These household names in their own households were put back into the Seanad by a tiny, exclusive electorate comprising the 228 sitting TDs and Senators in the Oireachtas. Even with their exceptional status, a few of them still couldn’t be bothered to vote.

Never mind – Maria and Gerry are back to reprise their massive contributions to the parliamentary process thanks to Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael colleagues who obeyed orders despite it being a secret ballot, sticking to the voting pact agreed by the two main Government parties. This was the biggest surprise of two byelections which won’t be talked about for a long time to come.

The level of excitement generated by the two counts could scarcely be matched by the Dáil, even when it turned out that Mary Lou McDonald wasn’t actually referring to events concerning the Upper House in her optimistically tinged remarks to the Taoiseach.

Another new oversight group to be set up in your department. Why is this being set up? Why do we need a new layer of bureaucracy?

But her talk of light at the end of the tunnel was short-lived. It was her solemn duty to break the news that this bright and newfound sense of hope will hit the buffers of “bad policy and bad government” once we are out of the Covid underpass.

Alan Kelly is still stuck in the tunnel, trying to get past a large blockage of vaccine the Government is promising to “roll out” quickly. But the Labour leader fears this may not go to plan because he thinks Micheál Martin, while throwing out numbers and promising a lot, still sounds very vague about delivering.

“You’re the Taoiseach of Ireland. People deserve to know the answers.”

The Taoiseach reassured him. “The target is still the target.” There are, however, “challenges in terms of supply”.

Pandemic group therapy

But another committee should speed things along. Micheál is big into pandemic group therapy, which is why he’s just set up another one.

“Another new oversight group to be set up in your department,” marvelled Alan. This one is the Vaccine Rollout Group, featuring top civil servant Martin Frazer on the thumbscrews. Martin is the Taoiseach’s troubleshooter.

“Why is this being set up? Why do we need a new layer of bureaucracy?” asked Kelly, who suspects the sub-group was established as a “mudguard” to make sure Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly doesn’t make a hames of the crucial vaccine rollout.

Micheál was appalled by such a suggestion. The Labour leader should be supporting the Government’s efforts and not indulging in “infantile and juvenile” politics to gain publicity.

“Answer the question!” roared AK-47, angrily thumping his little table.

The Taoiseach explained, in terms which only he could find simple, what his latest committee is about.

“The group that we have established, which you have asked about, is nothing to be concerned about. It is a very simple group that involves the HSE, that involves Niac, because there is a relationship between advice and the operationalisation of that advice in terms of the administration of vaccines. That to me is a simple, positive thing to do.”

If only everything could be so simple, like Micheál’s many committees or the Seanad byelections or Danny Healy-Rae’s overwrought dismissal of the climate change Bill.

DHR, his brother Michael, Mattie McGrath and the rest of the rural Independents crew went hell for leather for Eamon Ryan when he introduced the legislation in the Dáil, signalling their utter contempt for the measures by noisily squawking during his speech that they had not been given a copy of the script.

Danny accused the Green Party leader and Minister for the Environment of driving rural people into the ground and trying to “finish them off altogether”.

Sinister development

With no sign of the written script – for some reason viewed as a very sinister development by the rural Independents, who wanted the session suspended until it could be produced – an anguished Danny howled: “It’s like Russia now – Putin in action!”

Danny was careful not to fall over and even more careful to put on a blockbuster performance for his hometown audience

They argued passionately that they needed the script to prepare their contributions to the debate, but they were so far down the speakers’ list there was ample time for them to get their hands on it and digest the contents.

It was early in the evening when their turn rolled around again. The Ceann Comhairle, looking up at Danny in his allotted seat in the front row of the Convention Centre balcony, was worried he might get too carried away.

“Mind yourself up there now, I’d be afraid you might fall over that. Be careful.”

He was careful not to fall over and even more careful to put on a blockbuster performance for his hometown audience, invoking the Russian president again as he blasted the Greens for “blackguarding” the people of rural Ireland by sneaking in his Bill.

Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman, a Green Party TD, pushed back strongly. If they were that concerned about the legislation, why didn’t they show their faces at the long and careful discussions of the joint committee on climate change?

“Because the Bill before us didn’t come out of thin air... Where were those deputies, because it’s very easy to be in here today when the cameras are on.”

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