Miriam Lord: Blame the virus - the Dáil is a sad, pathetic little parliament now

Dáil Sketch: Move to Convention Centre can’t come too soon for socially distancing TDs

An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has told the Dáil that the easing of Covid-19 public health measures "will be gradual" and may not mirror the manner in which they were introduced. Video: Oireachtas TV

 

They should be in the dock.

Leo Varadkar. Micheál Martin. Mary Lou McDonald. Eamon Ryan. Mattie, Willie, Ringer, Róisín, Simon, Simon, Gino, the Healy-Raes, Richard Boyd Barrett, Violet-Anne Wynne, Heather, Hildegarde, Ó Snodaigh, O’Callaghan, Ó Fearghaíl...

All 160 TDs. The whole damn shooting gallery.

They should be in the dock. These desperate days, it’s the only place for the likes of them.

Anyone watching what passed for Dáil proceedings would have reached the same verdict on Thursday. It’s a sad, pathetic little parliament now.

Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Josepha Madigan arrives at Leinster House for a Dáil sitting on Thursday. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Josepha Madigan arrives at Leinster House for a Dáil sitting on Thursday. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Nobody’s fault. Blame the virus. But the sooner they ship out of the Dáil chamber and hightail it across the Liffey to the Convention Centre in Spencer Dock the better it will be for everyone. With or without a government, Dáil Éireann cannot carry on much longer with the pitiful sitting arrangements imposed on the House because of the Covid-19 restrictions.

For social distancing reasons, there are yawning gaps between deputies. This is certainly not conducive to the cut and thrust. A few hours into the latest sitting, even the gaps were yawning.

Apparently a small family of voles has moved into Eamon Ryan’s exploding bouffant

The size of the buffer zone between each TD has been increased since the last time they met. Now, alternate rows are roped off and lie empty while bright yellow prohibition notices adorn blocks of seats in the other rows. Large printed place-cards signpost the paltry amount of usable pews scattered around the chamber.

“We have been battered by a wave of destruction but, as a people, we have endured,” quivered the Taoiseach to the hairy handful it washed in to hear him (the lack of hairdressing services is taking its toll on everyone).

Apparently a small family of voles has moved into Eamon Ryan’s exploding bouffant, which has become a topic of waspish discussion among some men in Leinster House who are not so blessed in the roofing area.

“Actually, it’s much more important to have your hair cut regularly when you’re thinning a bit,” confided a colleague as he cast sour glances down the Green leader’s bonce from the vantage point of the press gallery.

The Greens, by the way, took to the plinth to announce their latest move in the slow bicycle race to government. The party released a letter it sent to the leaders of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael outlining its conditions for entering coalition.

They included a list of 17 questions that they say must be answered if a deal is to be done.

Arrowhead formation

Eamon Ryan was joined by fellow TDs Malcolm Noonan and Roderic O’Gorman. They stood at the microphones in an arrowhead formation, with Ryan at the front, looking like three remaining skittles waiting to be hit by a bowling ball.

Back inside, discussion of the Covid-19 crisis continued. There were serious and worthwhile contributions, with the nursing and care home situation still one of the main concerns of deputies, alongside continuing questions over the issue of transparency and communications.

The Sinn Féin leader told the Taoiseach she is worried about the “the mixed messages and kite-flying from your Government”. Mary Lou McDonald looked in fine fettle and she thanked everyone for their good wishes and expressions of concern during her recent encounter with the virus.

Indeed, when she stood to speak, her words carried extra weight as she was speaking as a survivor. She turned to Leo Varadkar.

“Taoiseach, I waited 16 days for a test result.”

Some waited even longer, she said, many of them frontline workers. This is “unacceptable” and “scandalous” and needs to be fixed.

Puffed up

The authorities in Leinster House worked very hard to get their distancing measurements right, but they miscalculated where Alan Kelly was concerned. The new leader of the Labour Party was so puffed up with contentment he took up an extra seat on either side. He is the happiest TD in Kildare Street at the moment and going about his new job with commendable vigour.

There is a big bottle of sanitiser, a box of surgical gloves and a couple of boxes of tissues on it. It looks a bit seedy

The three double doors to the chamber are now flung open for the duration of Dáil sessions, all the better to waft the germs about in the cross-flow. Depending on who is speaking (dead heat between Mick Barry and Richard Boyd Barrett) you can hear them at the end of the corridor at the foot of the staircase.

A large mahogany table has been put in place just outside the main doors into the chamber. There is a big bottle of sanitiser, a box of surgical gloves and a couple of boxes of tissues on it. It looks a bit seedy.

Down in the belly of the beast, on the floor of the House, the Clerk of the Dáil now sits where the Oireachtas reporters usually sit. These are the men and women who are charged with committing the works of TDs to the official record, but only after they have corrected their grammar, reordered sentences, removed repetition, deadened regional lyricism and dulled rhetorical flourishes in accordance with ridiculously outdated rules taken from Westminster.

The ushers were charged with making sure that the handful of members allowed in for the different sessions – first up was Leo Varadkar, followed by the Minister for Finance, the Minister for Health and the Minister for Education – sat in their designated seats.

Varadkar’s name-card said “Taoiseach”. Micheál Martin sat behind “Fianna Fáil 1”. We can’t really remember what he said because we were still thinking of the conversation he had in the street the other day with Róisín Ingle about rhubarb.

The strict new arrangements mean doughnuts are most definitely off the menu

The sitting, which started at midday, was scheduled to finish at around seven, but the talking continued until the dot of eight so that the TDs present could join in the national round of applause and appreciation for frontline workers.

The Taoiseach nipped in for the occasion, as did Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Josepha Madigan, who stood out in an emerald green suit.

Magician’s assistant

It was a sad day for Josepha, who had performed like a magician’s assistant at previous socially distanced sessions, sitting at a decent remove from the Taoiseach for most of the time until magically appearing in a seat directly behind him when he was on his feet and on camera.

The strict new arrangements mean doughnuts are most definitely off the menu, so there will be no more “doughnutting” around the leader for exposure purposes.

Enforcement of the rules made for a strange atmosphere. At times, the chamber resembled a restaurant with notions, with the uniformed Captain of the Guard sliding around the carpeted walkways like a maître d’ as he showed TDs to their reserved seats.

You had to feel sorry for the Ceann Comhairle, who spent most of the day in the chair without hearing as much as a voice raised in anger, never mind a bellowing match across the floor. He looked very forlorn as he looked out across the silent benches.

Nobody even wished Seán Ó Fearghaíl a happy birthday. We hear the popular Ceann Comhairle celebrated a big roundy one last Friday. Comhghairdeas, Seán.

We hear preparations are now well in train to move the whole kit and caboodle over to the Convention Centre for when the time comes to elect a new government or hold votes on important legislation.

The Dockside Dáil – depending on Covid-19 – it could be in operation for a long time to come.

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