Miriam Lord: Coalition rows in behind Leo as Sinn Féin battered from pillar to post

Party’s meaningless buzzwords, soundbites and rehashed arguments fail to find traction

The perpetually affronted tried to topple the Tánaiste again on Tuesday. Different arena, same tired rhetoric. It was their second attempt in a week. The omens were bad. Sinn Féin decided to go after Leo Varadkar on November 10th, the Feast Day of St Leo the Great. If we didn’t know this before the Dáil vote of confidence in the Fine Gael leader we knew it afterwards because Leo’s Coalition cheerleaders canonised him on the spot during the debate.

The first Leo the Great died in 460 and was the first pope to be called “the Great”. Greatness doesn’t do justice to the current one who, having conceded last week that he might be infallible, was lauded to a height by his adoring colleagues.

As nearly two hours of increasingly cloying tributes threatened to rot every tooth within a mile radius of Dublin’s Convention Centre, former Fine Gael minister Joe McHugh had us reaching for the sick bucket with his misty eyed descriptions of a “solutions-focused” Tánaiste who “at all times was conscious of the enormous responsibility placed on his very young shoulders.”

But if the lionising of Leo was hard to take, the lack of any fresh argument amid the overweening smug self-righteousness radiating from the other side was even worse.

Opposition anger

Whatever about Opposition anger at Varadkar’s leaking of a confidential document on a pay deal struck with the Irish Medical Organisation to an acquaintance representing a rival doctors’ group, the whys and wherefores of the episode had been thrashed out in the Dáil a week earlier.

The Tánaiste’s explanations stretched credulity in parts, but he apologised on the floor of the Dáil and then took questions from the Opposition. The Taoiseach and a slightly nauseous Fianna Fáil excused his indiscretion and the Coalition, with its Dáil voting majority, rowed in behind Varadkar. Unless something else emerged to undermine Leo’s story, this controversy was going nowhere.

But Sinn Féin wanted to keep it going, serving up the reheated and rehashed remains of the controversy with a no confidence motion in the Tánaiste. Not the best idea, when the only weapon in their arsenal was the familiar recitation of phrases beginning with “the politics of . . .” ending with any combination of “cosy club” “cosy club culture” “old boys network” “golden circle” “insider culture” and “Brian Hayes”. While, crucially, “calling time” on all of this.

Bury the Shinners

If Sinn Féin came to bury the Tánaiste, Varadkar’s Government colleagues responded by going all out to bury the Shinners.

The Fine Gael and Fianna Fail TDs were vicious. Sinn Féin was battered from pillar to post by a wave of Government deputies who grabbed the party by its wrinkled cliches until they popped. One after another, they seized on the meaningless buzzwords and soundbites and threw them back at their political pushers.

The Taoiseach led the onslaught signalling that while Fianna Fáil may not enjoy having to defend Varadkar, the party will not be prodded into collapsing the Government by a glaringly opportunistic try-on from Mary Lou McDonald and her strategists.

The Government tabled a counter motion and won it. There was never any doubt.

As the session came to a close, Independent TD for Louth Peter Fitzpatrick declared the whole exercise had been a waste of time. As a confidence motion required all members of the Dáil to take part in a full vote, Tuesday’s proceedings had to move from Leinster House to the Convention Centre in accordance with Covid-19 distancing rules at a cost of €25,000.

‘Waste of taxpayers’ money’

“It is a complete waste of taxpayers’ money. Surely we have more important issues to debate.”

One issue they wouldn’t be discussing was the situation involving judicial hot potato Séamus Woulfe, who is refusing to step down as a Supreme Court judge even though the Chief Justice and his colleagues on the bench want him to resign over his part in “Golfgate” and his less than judicious handling of its aftermath.

There were huge efforts to keep the Woulfe from the door of the Dáil after the Ceann Comhairle issued a stern warning to deputies to watch what they say in this delicate situation for the politicians, now that it has been landed on their plate by the beaks.

One thing we learned though is that whatever we are paying the current Attorney General, it isn’t enough. The Government issued a very brief, haven’t an idea how we’re going to handle this, statement after the Séamus situation was discussed at Cabinet.

Paul Gallagher advised the Government that “serious constitutional” issues are at stake. Who’d have thought it?

Populist politics

Back at the Convention Centre, the politics of Sinn Féin was lambasted by speakers as the populist politics of Trump. But there’s as new man in the job now and the Taoiseach’s people were so overjoyed to hear that Joe Biden was going to contact him that they issued a tweet before their phone conversation happened.

This is like Varadkar’s erstwhile pal sending WhatsApp messages about his meetings with the then taoiseach, which he now says never happened.

But Micheál and Joe had their tete-a-tete and the Taoiseach, looking flushed but happy, got back in time to open the debate.

Where were the “blockbuster” revelations which Sinn Féin said would justify their no-confidence motion, he wondered? They never came.

“Nothing has significantly changed since last week’s session,” he said, branding the motion as a “100 per cent cynical move”. It was an example of “the politics of always looking for an angle.”

Dull thud

He then said he was “happy” to propose a motion of confidence in his Tánaiste.

There was a dull thud in the background. That was his Sligo TD Marc MacSharry hitting the ground in shock.

Simon Coveney lashed out at Sinn Féin’s “faceless online trolls and their backers” who were “sustaining a political smear campaign masquerading as whistleblowing to inflict maximum political damage”. It was “the politics of division and resentment”.

Heather Humphreys took up the cudgels. Sinn Féin was the richest party in the country “you even had Donald Trump at one of your gold-plated dinners in America.”

Labour’s Aodhán Ó Ríordáin said his party was voting no confidence in the Tánaiste, but wasn’t doing out of any respect for Sinn Féin, which presents itself “as a friend of the ethical left” but is nothing of the sort: They practise insider politics and are in thrall to an old boys club in Belfast when saying they want to stand against it.

“We are in a Coalition. It is not a club,” explained Eamon Ryan.

On and on, they attacked Sinn Féin while praising Varadkar for his “politics of decency”. Paschal Donohoe was misty eyed as he marvelled at the wonder that is Leo.

McDonald wasn’t put out by the attacks. She put out all the usual lines. “Old guard came together to keep change out. . .the insider, cosy club of politics . . . the Fine Gael Cosy Culture Club”.

The Taoiseach was “standing idly by” and letting Leo away with it.

“We are now calling time on the politics of the cosy club”.

Joe McHugh told fellow Donegal TD Pearse Doherty: “you can do all the shouting and roaring you want, you will not be making the decisions, it will be the boys around that monitor in the old boys club in Belfast tonight.”

And the Sinn Féin deputy shouted “Are we going to allow for this cozy insiders club to continue or are we going to vote for accountability?”

“It’s the first time I’ve faced a motion of no confidence in my life” sniffed St Leo the Great.

Never mind. You’ll reap your reward in Heaven.

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