Miriam Lord: Coveney result never in doubt, but it’s not all plain sailing for Simon

Next week the Dáil might start doing some real work

 Simon Coveney leaving Government Buildings after a motion to vote confidence in him has succeeded by 92 votes to 59.  Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Simon Coveney leaving Government Buildings after a motion to vote confidence in him has succeeded by 92 votes to 59. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

 

Christmas lunch was served in the Dáil canteen to mark the full return of hostilities to Leinster House this year. Turkey and all the trimmings crowned the first menu of the new term, with last December’s unused crackers glittering on the tables and laid out in a golden line along the self-service counter.

The catering staff wrote a message on the blackboard.

“Welcome back. We missed the craic.”

In keeping with the yuletide theme, Sinn Féin promised they would be roasting Simon Coveney’s chestnuts on an open fire at teatime.

The turkeys should have been confined to the canteen but Fianna Fáil’s Marc MacSharry escaped in the evening and made his way upstairs to vote for Christmas. The rest of the Government TDs, including some of MacSharry’s disgruntled party colleagues, voted confidence in the Minister for Foreign Affairs to avert a Coalition collapse.

Outside of the cheery dining arrangements, there was nothing festive about the opening Dáil sitting. Everyone was delighted to be back in the old chamber after months of shouting into the sterile emptiness of the Dublin Convention Centre, but the mood was anything but cordial.

It was a miserable return for the Government, facing a no-confidence motion in Coveney despite having consumed industrial amounts of humble pie over the last two months in an attempt to atone for his atrocious handling of the fallout from Katherine Zappone’s farewell party/job pitch in the Merrion Hotel.

This minor event, linked with a failed attempt to land a Government-sponsored networking number in the UN for the former minister, ended up with more “gates” than an airport departure lounge.

It was a mess made by the Fine Gael leg of the Coalition and it dominated the summer. Taoiseach Micheál Martin, blindsided by Zappone’s proposed appointment as special envoy, accepted the profuse apologies of his foreign affairs Minister and his boss, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, for not telling him. Lessons would be learned, said everyone in Government.

Coveney went before two Dáil committees to explain himself. The first time to apologise and the second time to apologise for his first apology. He went on radio to explain himself and had to apologise after that performance too.

His boss Micheál Martin was ready to forgive, but then he got it in the neck for being too soft and not sacking an errant Fine Gael Minister the way Fine Gael had secured the sacking of errant Fianna Fail Ministers, who were fuming at the injustice of it all, along with their seething colleagues.

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin was not inclined to accept any apologies or any number of mea culpa committee appearances from Coveney. He had to take the rap for the blatant cronyism displayed in the attempt to fix-up up Katherine with her New York foot-in-the-door.

And they had to make the most of the Government’s embarrassment.

Rule the waves

It’s been a terrible few months for the Minister after he had been doing so well on the international front with Brexit and the UN Security Council. Things had been going so well that keen yachtsman Coveney looked set to rule the waves in his native county by bringing the prestigious Americas Cup race to Cork.

But on the day of his confidence vote – “quite honestly, I never thought I’d find myself in the middle of a debate like this one” – he told the House on Wednesday, word from Government circles was that Ireland may not seek to host the event in 2024.

Could it get any worse?

Yes. The Minister appeared in the chamber with an alarmingly large wound on his scalp. We knew some of the Fianna Fáilers were angry with the way their party has been dragged into Fine Gael’s problem, but nobody said anything about violence. It turns out that Coveney was pottering in his shed, moving things about and when he stood up his split his head open on a sheet of metal. He had to have it stitched up and glued back together by the local GP.

Sinn Féin wasn’t interested in his head – unless it was on a plate. Mary Lou McDonald, ably assisted by Matt Carthy, Pearse Doherty and a long list of TDs on the moral warpath, preferred to go for the jugular.

Before the debate began, Fianna Fáil dissident Marc MacSharry announced he would be voting no confidence in his erstwhile government colleague and duly left his parliamentary party. Shockwaves coursed through Leinster House for half a second but that was only down to the distress of political correspondents who have lost a valued confidant.

Speaking of confidants, Sinn Féin’s Matt Carthy caused a stir in the chamber when he said that Minister Simon Harris was the culprit who leaked details of the Zappone appointment, setting this whole sorry series of events in train.

But will Carthy level the same accusation outside Leinster House, when he doesn’t have the protection of Dáil privilege? That’s the question.

The Taoiseach opened the debate, standing full square behind Coveney, who sat for most of it with his head bowed and hands steepled in front of him. The confidence motion was “completely out of proportion”, said Martin. The problem had been addressed, steps have been taken to make sure such a situation doesn’t happen again and Coveney’s performance as a minister was not in question.

“Gross abuse of office? That is manifestly not the case,” he said.

“This is, by any standard, an abuse of office,” declared Mary Lou McDonald, telling the Taoiseach his party and the Tánaiste’s party believe they are entitled to hold power as a right. “You believe that government belongs to you.”

Their motion was not solely about Coveney: “It’s about your toxic culture.” The atmosphere in the chamber was toxic.

Loathing

There had has always been no love lost between Sinn Féin and the two main Coalition parties, but on Wednesday night their mutual loathing was almost palpable. But where the politicians on the Government side appeared angry and despondent, the SF TDs across the floor were chipper and rearing to go.

They had their points about elites and cosy clubs and establishment insiders – the Government gave them a perfect chance to rehearse them again and drive the message home.

At one point, when Leo Varadkar listed Sinn Féin’s record of cronyism and said it was not to make any excuses for how Coveney handled the Zappone appointment, Aengus Ó Snodaigh loudly retorted “Bulls**t!”

“I think the interruptions and the curse words are indicative of the fact that the truth really hurts Sinn Féin. The truth really hurts Sinn Féin.”

Both sides traded insults.

“I do not make these points to understate the fact that mistakes were made nor to avoid accountability for them but rather to ask for balance and proportionality,” said Varadkar. “Sinn Féin is seeking tonight to hound an honourable man out of office for cheap publicity and political gain.”

With MacSharry offside, what would other Fianna Fáil backbenchers do? Barry Cowen was keenly watched before he stood to speak. He seemed on edge. But while expressing his disappointment at how Fine Gael handled the situation and speaking darkly of a Government “last chance”, he said he would vote confidence in Coveney.

Junior Minister Hildegard Naughton urged the House to “reject this motion”, earning a chorus of derision from Sinn Féin for her efforts. The motion before the Dáil was her Government’s counter-motion, supporting her party colleague, Coveney.

MacSharry appeared for the vote. Fine Gael’s Josepha Madigan gave him a hug. “Níl,” he said, when his turn came. Still, at least he’ll be able to speak his mind now.

And Simon Harris, who’s only dying to take the argument outside with Matt Carthy who earlier accused him of being the cabinet leaker, arrived in just before the vote. He was the only FG minister who didn’t speak on the motion.

The result was never in doubt.

And next week the Dáil might start doing some real work.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.