Miriam Lord: Dáil exchanges turn snappy amid election heebie-jeebies
Martin and Varadkar fight over respective disability sector records as Brexit truce holds
Leo Varadkar, perhaps getting some Brexit frustration out of his system or maybe imagining what it must be like to be on the verge of calling a snap election, continued on the offensive. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Little bundles of joy at every turn in Leinster House.
Aaah, would you look at them.
TDs of all persuasion walking the corridors cradling their newly arrived little bundles of smiley-faced joy. Honestly, who could resist those needy, trust-me eyes looking out at you?
Definitely not the TDs.
All any of them really want to do is sink their faces into that magical freshness and deeply inhale the sweet fragrance of their newborn election leaflets. Which they most likely do, when no one is watching.
Their glowing portraits of airbrushed sincerity swaddled in bullet points and “know your entitlements” tables are ready to go out there now and face the big, bad world. They’ve been flying off the printing machines all week and flying out of Leinster House in ever-increasing bundles.
Soon it will be time to let them go for ever.
No prizes for guessing it’s all Brexit’s fault, because it is.
The Taoiseach may protest otherwise, but few are taking any chances. Talk of an election next month hasn’t abated one little bit. So what if it might not happen? Better to be prepared than caught on the hop.
The more the speculation grows, the worse the TDs get. Even though Leo Varadkar is falling over himself to deny he has ever entertained impure thoughts about November, even his own Fine Gael foot soldiers are up in the air with anticipation. It’s the nature of the beast. The heebie-jeebies have taken over on Kildare Street.
But it’s entertaining listening to experienced politicians outline the reasons why, in their considered opinion, Leo will not call a snap election this side of Christmas before they talk themselves around to the view that Leo would be mad not to call a snap election if he gets a decent Brexit outcome and “what are you hearing yourself, how do you think it will go?”
All day and into the night on Wednesday, with the EU and UK negotiators wedged like a cork up their Brexit talks tunnel, occasional updates escaped from the business end of the bung to torment the jitterers.
Many are comforting themselves in this time of uncertainty by admiring their campaign merchandise. All sorts of gimmicks and gee-gaws can be branded these days. Our current favourite is Declan “Dáil Representative for Louth & Coastal Meath” Breathnach’s calling card. Nice photo on a green background with all his contact details on the back taking up so much room there isn’t any space left for a mention of Fianna Fáil.
It may look like an average card, but when you push a little button in the back of Declan’s head, a light comes on. Apparently Micheál has to do this in real life with quite a few of his backbenchers.
Speaking of the Fianna Fáil leader, he isn’t holding with any of this election talk either. Just like the man whose job he’s after, Micheál is remaining aloof from such talk.
Neither has he any intention of dirtying his Brexit green jersey to get one over on the Government. In fact, there is precious little return for him in even mentioning the blasted thing. Criticism of the Taoiseach and his team at this crucial phase of negotiations would not be a good look. The Fianna Fáil leader doesn’t want to be complicit in burnishing Leo’s Brexit halo. It only takes away from his own shine.
Best to steer clear of the subject altogether during Leaders’ Questions. It can be discussed in a more neutral setting later at the less confrontational session of questions to the Taoiseach on matters relating to his department.
The Fianna Fáil leader swooped from the high moral ground, rounding on the Taoiseach
So Micheál has been niggling Leo over social issues instead, excoriating his Government for its record on health and housing in particular. The Taoiseach doesn’t like it. He hits back, usually by reciting a list of his administration’s achievements. Whereupon Micheál lambastes him for trying to score political points using hugely sensitive issues, thereby trying to bag some political points for himself in the process.
Then Leo accuses his opposite number, whose party is sustaining his party in power, of political point-scoring.
Au contraire, goads Micheál, you’re the one doing that.
With varying degrees of success depending on the day, the pair of them studiously effect to remain above the vulgar fray.
The Fianna Fáil leader swooped from the high moral ground on Wednesday, rounding on the Taoiseach for what he saw as a lack concern for people with disabilities. He instanced the funding problems of the Cope Foundation in Cork to drive home his point.
“You’re just not delivering as a government on disability, Taoiseach,” he thundered. “You’ve got to change tack in relation to delivering to people with disability.”
As the Minister for Health clucked his disapproval from the front bench, Micheál told a frowning Leo to “Talk to families. Engage with families. You’re in denial.”
The Taoiseach wasn’t going to take that. Not for the first time – “a bit like yesterday” – the leader of the Opposition was trying to “misrepresent and mischaracterise my response in order to score political points and make yourself look good”.
“Hear hear!” they cried on the Government side.
“That is not true,” bridled Micheál.
Micheál Martin argued the point in his high-pitched Angry of Cork tone
“It is exactly true, and I think it’s disappointing,” sniffed Leo. And a further “truth” is that the Cope Foundation does “fabulous work” and “has received budget increases in the last number of years and is getting another one next year”.
“The other truth is that when you were in government, you cut the budget for disability services, you cut the disability allowance,” fumed the Taoiseach, stung by the criticism.
“You’re no friend of people with disabilities. Your record on disability is appalling,” he shouted across at mild-mannered Micheál, stabbing his finger in his direction.
On the offensive
The Fianna Fáil leader looked a bit taken aback, in a slightly satisfied way. “You should talk to people in the disability sector about my record,” he countered.
But the Taoiseach, perhaps getting some Brexit frustration out of his system or maybe imagining what it must be like to be on the verge of calling a snap election, continued on the offensive.
“You should be ashamed of your record when it comes to disability and not be so self-righteous in this House. Ashamed of yourself. Ashamed!”
He sat down with thump to a cacophony of supportive and outraged roars.
“G’wan, go check it out now,” insisted Micheál, in his high-pitched Angry of Cork tone. His Fianna Fáil colleagues pitched in with a noisy litany of complaints.
The Taoiseach retaliated. “Fianna Fáil cut the disability allowance. You should be ashamed of how you treated people with disabilities.”
There was uproar.
“Would you to calm down a little bit please,” sighed the Ceann Comhairle. C’mere, please, pleeease.”
“Ashamed,” repeated Leo into the growing din.
Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghail knew what was going on. It was a full-blown manifestation of the election rumour heebie-jeebies.
“The whistle hasn’t been blown yet, so will ye calm down.”
But both teams are very much out on the pitch and warming up in earnest.
If the ball isn’t thrown in soon, they’ll be burnt out by Christmas.
Matron, more leaflets!