Miriam Lord: Choirboy Varadkar hits sour notes in Dáil row

Mary Lou McDonald thrown out of Dáil as Taoiseach avoids bank questions

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Sinn Fein's Deputy Leader Mary Lou McDonald clashed in the Dail over the NI Executive. Video: Oireachtas TV


Benjamin Franklin or Roy Keane. Take your pick.

By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail, said one. Fail to prepare, prepare to fail, said the other.

You don’t have to tell Leo Varadkar that. He didn’t become Taoiseach by not doing his homework. His campaign for the Fine Gael leadership was carefully constructed from a long way out, and when the time came to make his move, he was so prepped and scripted he left his rival for dead at the starting blocks.

Nothing left to chance.

So it’s a bit rich when he rounds upon an articulate and able political opponent for being well prepared and ready for battle. And more than a little petty when he sneers at her for having a script while putting in her usual strong performance at Leaders’ Questions.

What did Leo have in front of him on his desk? Music sheets for the Fine Gael sing-song at that night’s parliamentary party meeting? Style tips for happening young prime ministers? The latest gossipy letter from his Canadian pen pal Justin?

He certainly had no problem glancing down at his papers when he was speaking.

Punchy lines

Mary Lou McDonald came into the Dáil yesterday all geared up to deliver some punchy lines about bailed-out banks, now in healthy profit, being exempt from corporation tax for the next 20 years due to huge loses accumulated during the financial crisis.

As her colleague Pearse Doherty had extracted this information from AIB’s boss at an Oireachtas committee the previous day, her chosen subject for Leaders’ Questions came as no surprise. Leo arrived well briefed.

Sinn Féin’s deputy leader is seldom lost for a word, scripted or otherwise. There was plenty of meat for reporters when she noted that AIB will be paying “zip, zero, zilch” in taxes.

That sort of thing drives people mad. None more so than Leo’s beloved People Who Get Up Early in the Morning and may or may not eat their dinner in the middle of the day. He’s not some urban hipster, you know.

Mary Lou McDonald stopped in front of the Taoiseach’s seat to remonstrate with him before leaving the chamber.
Mary Lou McDonald stopped in front of the Taoiseach’s seat to remonstrate with him before leaving the chamber.

That money from AIB and the rest of the banks would work wonders for our cash-strapped public services, suggested McDonald. “Is it any wonder that we have a tight fiscal space?” And even if the Government is intent on getting the national finances on an even keel in the forthcoming budget, Mary Lou reckoned letting the banks off paying tax on their profits is “a very strange way to go about balancing the books.”

Republic of Opportunity

She finished with a swipe at the Taoiseach’s latest favourite phrase – it’s too easy to resist really, the Fianna Fáil leader had a go at it earlier in his contribution – by calling Leo’s Republic of Opportunity a sham.

But the Taoiseach had facts and figures at his fingertips to mount his counterargument. Although his argument wasn’t as quotable or digestible as Mary Lou’s.

So the man who has just added another PR layer to the Government makeover machine by establishing a strategic communications unit took a gratuitous dig at her style of presentation in order to sex up his own.

“I wish to compliment Deputy McDonald on the flawless delivery of your script,” he began as she looked askance. “Pauses, intonation and everything was absolutely perfect as always,” smarmed Leo, voice dripping with sarcasm as he made shapes with his hands in the air.

“I hope you didn’t spend too much time practicing it this morning.” Words clearly spoken by a fella who probably doesn’t have a single mirror in his house.

It’s probably a lot more.

Perhaps the Taoiseach might look around at his own troops as they routinely mumble their way through supplied scripts, giving the impression that if an adviser shoved the TV listings into their hands on the way into the chamber they would read them out from start to finish without noticing.

But back to Mary Lou’s question about the banks, which Leo didn’t answer.

She wasn’t happy with his second-round answer either and heckled him through it. This is what happens in the Dáil and the new Taoiseach doesn’t like it one bit. Almost every day since he got the job he’s whinged and whinged about Opposition TDs not having the courtesy to let him get on with his replies.

But Sinn Féin in particular – and they do a nice line in self-righteous interrupting – really get on Leo’s goat. Party members’ habit of goading him show Sinn Féin’s “innate contempt for democracy and free speech” declared the Taoiseach, concluding that it indicated “the kind of democracy we’d get if Sinn Féin got into power”.

Withering looks

Mary Lou threw her eyes to heaven and gave him withering looks over her spectacles.

The two had a second spat later in the day, this time on Northern Ireland when the Taoiseach said Sinn Féin should make compromises in order to restore the Executive.

Cue more interventions from McDonald.

“This is the constant pattern of the debate we have in this parliament,” sighed Leo.

“At least it is not scripted” retorted Mary Lou.

“The only time you’re not scripted is when you’re interrupting, which is an interesting point,” he shrugged.

“The Taoiseach is so clever he doesn’t need a script,” she shot back.

And so it went. The acting chairman threatened to throw Mary Lou out if she didn’t keep quiet.

“It’s no laughing matter,” she bridled, as Leo rounded on Sinn Féin’s disruption tactics.

“I’m laughing at you, not the issue.”

The Sinn Féin deputy told him she didn’t find him in the least bit funny.

“Ah you’re very cranky today,” he smiled.

“I’m not cranky at all. I find you facile and dismissive on important issues.”

He was that a fair bit yesterday.

As Alan Farrell in the chair spluttered about telling her to leave, Mary Lou said she was leaving anyway. But not before stopping by the Taoiseach’s seat, pointing her finger at him and saying she would write to him and then, perhaps, he might answer her questions.

All knockabout fun, but did the Taoiseach have to behave like he was at a university debate? The upside for him, though, is that the questions about the banks paying their taxes were forgotten in the little drama he conjured up.

Although, having also crossed swords with Ruth Coppinger and Clare Daly, some were saying afterwards that he seemed to be rather condescending and irritable with these female politicians. Not a good image for a new Taoiseach who was described by one of his own TDs during the leadership campaign as being head of a group of cocky Fine Gael choirboys.

Leo would want to watch out.

He won’t want to become known as the leading choirboy who can’t mix it with a few sopranos.

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