Miriam Lord: Creed’s straight bat sends Fianna Fáil into a spin
Minister for Agriculture changes the tune but Opposition still refusing to buy it
Shrewd: Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
On Tuesday the Taoiseach treated the Dáil to a bad pre-season rendition of The Twelve Days of Christmas. With a medical twist. It went down like a chocolate Santa on a boiling radiator.
Leo Varadkar’s version had only five proper days in it and he loudly blamed doctors and nurses for running off with the other seven.
Luckily for him he wasn’t around to receive the critics’ notices in person. Hot geyser Leo was in Helsinki at what appeared to be a photography workshop, having his picture taken with the Finnish prime minister in loads of different locations while unsuccessfully searching for a photogenic reindeer in a high-vis jacket because he had to leave Eoghan Murphy at home.
Opposition TDs couldn’t wait to pan his performance and were very disappointed when the Minister for Agriculture turned up to accept the brickbats on his boss’s behalf.
The lesser-spotted Michael Creed, who rarely ventures from his departmental habitat, had some of the urban deputies studying him with fascination.
So that’s the agriculture fella? What does he sound like? Will we understand him? Does he sleep in a bed or roost somewhere? Has he just emerged from a period of hibernation?
Creed is very low-key. Unless it’s subsidies, silage or sucklers, he prefers to get on with the job and shun the media spotlight.
But Michael is a shrewd operator. He is articulate and smart and not easily riled. On Wednesday in the Dáil, Opposition TDs may as well have been talking to the wall as trying to get a rise out of him by attacking the Taoiseach for attacking the doctors and nurses.
Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, Labour and People Before Profit queued up to complain about Leo’s remarks the previous day in response to questions from Micheál Martin about the HSE’s Winter Ready Plan.
After the standard exposition of the statistics, the Taoiseach declared that these plans haven’t been up to much for years because hospitals are effectively closed for most of the Christmas period. Seven out of the 12 days, running into the New Year, he said.
“We need to change that. We need to make sure, for the first time ever, that during that period radiology departments and laboratories will be open and working at full whack, that consultants will not be on holidays in the first week of the year, particularly those who work in emergency departments, and that nurses will not be on leave in the first two weeks of January.”
Sinn Féin’s David Cullinane (standing in for Mary Lou McDonald) thought the Taoiseach’s remarks were disgraceful. His attack on nurses and doctors was “a vindictive attempt to shift the blame” for hospital overcrowding away from his own record in the Department of Health, along with the performance of his Government and the current Minister.
The Lesser-Spotted Creed calmly responded with a straight face.
What was Cullinane on about? His leader had been very supportive of frontline workers and ancillary staff.
“Far from denigrating them, the challenge the Taoiseach posed yesterday was to HSE management.”
“He didn’t say that,” spluttered Brendan Howlin.
Thing is, soothed Creed, we need appropriate management from the top of the HSE so that the “human resource” is managed as efficiently as possible.
The Sinn Féin man was fit to be tied. “I sat here yesterday and I listened to what the Taoiseach said and it’s a million miles away from the response that you have given today. He was not talking about managers in the health service, he was talking about leave for nurses and doctors.”
The Minister had no idea where he was getting that notion from.
Then Brendan Howlin confirmed that Leo said what he said about doctors and nurses having, after 39 years, “made the staggering discovery that Christmas comes every December”. While there may be scope to change rostering at Christmas time, it’s a “management” issue that needs negotiation with unions “and not with abusing people either in this House or on the public airwaves”.
Bríd Smith spoke about the shortage of nurses, particularly in emergency departments. Hospitals can’t hold on to them because of the low pay.
“Nurses still work a shift for nothing every eight weeks and it sticks in their craw. That evening they have to go in and work through the night and get absolutely zero for it. There is nobody in this House would do that. In fact, I would argue we’re well overpaid for what we do compared to the low pay they get for what they do.”
The unflappable Creed evenly and briskly outlined Government policy.
Smith said certain specialities have been offered an extra €7 a week – “you wouldn’t buy two pints of beer with that pay increase. It’s an absolute insult to them.”
Her statement sparked interest from deputies on all sides. A hubbub of male voices rose as deputies discussed the price of two pints.
The Ceann Comhairle had to bang his gong to restore order.
The full Cork
Meanwhile, the Fianna Fáil leader – whose initial question sparked the controversy – got stuck in. The Taoiseach “in a narky response” to him said “that it’s all the nurses’ fault, it’s the consultants’ fault. He insulted those at the front line – that’s the bottom line,” said Micheál Martin, getting all worked up to that stage where his voice goes the full Cork.
“I asked him where was the plan. ‘Don’t mind your plan!’ he sez. ‘Don’t mind the plan I produced,’ – he talked about his own plan! He said the plans for the last six years were useless. That’s more or less what he said!”
As Micheál thundered away, Marc MacSharry sat behind him, arms folded, serious face in place, nodding his head with frightening intensity.
These workers deserve an apology from the Government, said Martin. And, by the way, when will we see this plan?
Creed quietly countered with his understanding of the exchange. “I do appreciate it is political to twist what the Taoiseach said for to suit a political narrative.”
“Read it,” shouted back Martin.
“I was here yesterday, as you were, Deputy,” condescended Creed.
“You should know, so,” hollered Timmy Dooley.
“I appreciate you have a particular narrative that you are anxious to spin, and that’s all fine, but the Taoiseach didn’t blame doctors or nurses,” said the Minister brazenly, as the chamber filled up with steam from Fianna Fáil ears.
“Will ya come out of the fog, for God’s sake?” cried Timmy in exasperation.
All the Taoiseach said was that “a critical mass” of staff should be on duty. That’s not unreasonable, crooned Creed.
Poor Micheál was fit to be tied. “But they do work at Christmas. Do you not know that? Nurses and doctors work every Christmas. Who the hell keeps the lights on?”
“I appreciate that,” whispered the Minister.
Micheál sighed heavily. “Aaaah, come on.”
No. No. Wait.
“What the Taoiseach was doing was challenging HSE management to make sure . . .” started Creed.
“He was challenging the nurses and doctors!” shouted Timmy, getting a blank stare in return.
Fianna Fáil continued roaring. Michael Creed continued downplaying.
Minister of State Patrick O’Donovan smirked across the floor at the Fianna Fáil leader.
“It was sooo much better when you were over here.”