Miriam Lord: Dáil’s big reopening day turns out to be not so big

The stools have returned to their rightful place at the counter in the Dáil bar

 Around Leinster House the canteen was purring again with all tables reinstated and the lunchtime buzz well and truly back. TDs were allowed bring guests into the building again. Photograph: Getty Images

Around Leinster House the canteen was purring again with all tables reinstated and the lunchtime buzz well and truly back. TDs were allowed bring guests into the building again. Photograph: Getty Images

 

There was more than a hint of the Hey Presto! about Micheál’s lavish Restoration drama on the steps of Government Buildings.

Catherine Connolly was certainly dazzled by the performance. “I know that with a ‘puff!’ from the Magic Dragon the restrictions were lifted at six o’clock last Friday,” acknowledged the Independent TD for Galway West, “and it would be churlish of me not to recognise the sense of relief and excitement felt by a lot of people.”

However, the decision was taken outside the Dáil despite Deputies having discussed Covid-19 measures throughout the pandemic. Now TDs are getting phone calls looking for clarification on a number of important issues. People say they are still not allowed into nursing homes to visit their loved ones, and others want to know why daycare centres are not operating.

There are also questions about compensation schemes and pandemic payments.

She called for “a full and frank discussion on an informed basis on the floor of the Dáil” as soon as possible on the “context of the lifting of Covid restrictions”.

The Taoiseach, looking relaxed after enjoying a few restorative Restoration pints over the weekend, was taken by Catherine’s opening line.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever been referred to as a magic dragon...” he replied, cracking that knowing little smile of somebody who thinks he is about to say something funny, “... but eh, but there might been a few dragons in it…but, eh…”

Careful, Micheál. Danger here!

Whatever the Taoiseach was going to say next about whomever (ears could have been burning down Nphet way or maybe he was thinking about certain Cabinet colleagues) he thought the better of it. Swiftly changing course, he clamped his serious face back on again. “Eh, but in terms of the public health decision I think it is a good idea to have a Dáil debate.”

Next week should be a good time, he reckoned. So another lengthy pandemic debate is on the cards, hardly a happy week into the Restoration. This is Long Covid, Leinster House-style, where the humdrum dragons never run out of puff.

Old chamber

Nonetheless there was great excitement in Kildare Street at the prospect of the Dáil returning to full capacity again after almost two years of reduced numbers and passionless politicking. Tuesday was a big day in the old chamber, with no more social distancing required and a welcome for everyone in a free-for-all House.

Finally, not forgetting the spaced out months spent wittering for Ireland in the cavernous Dublin Convention Centre, normal service was being resumed.

There was great excitement about the place, wasn’t there? Not really.

The 2020 intake of first-time TDs did not flood the chamber for their inaugural burning cheek by quivering jowl experience of full-throated roaring during Leaders’ Questions. The old hands, for all their whinging during the unpleasantness about missing the old atmosphere, didn’t bother their booster shots to make it inside either.

When the week’s business commenced at 2pm with Micheál and Mary Lou set to potentially perform before a packed hall for the first time in ages, it quickly became clear that there wouldn’t be any need to hang the “house full” signs from the handles.

At least Sinn Féin made the effort. Mary Lou McDonald’s troops displayed their trademark discipline and fully populated their portion of the benches, looking like a proper opposition. Full marks to party whip Padraig MacLochlainn for turning them out.

The same can’t be said for Government TDs. The Taoiseach was supported by four Ministers, five Junior Ministers and a piffling three coalition backbenchers, none of whom were from his own Fianna Fáil party. It was not a good look. The other parties and groupings fared no better.

Six TDs

By contrast Labour leader Alan Kelly, pencilled in for a slot during Leaders’ Questions, managed to muster a full half of his Dáil team for Restoration Day. Impressive, until you realise he only has six TDs.

The SocDems were a no-show until later in the proceedings, when Gary Gannon put in an appearance.

The main theme was the rising rate of inflation and the Government’s efforts to counteract it. As the cost of living rises and household bills soar, Mary Lou had surprisingly little faith in the coalition’s ability to deal with the mounting crisis.

“Far too slow to react,” she said. There has been no “step change” in policy over the last two years. “What we have seen is more of the same,” she told the Taoiseach. Apart from the hike in utility prices, this is also evident in the continuing rise in house prices and rents. “The truth is that you have continued with the same of the same.”

Not content with heckling about house prices, Sinn Féin’s property intellectual in residence Eoin Ó Broin also had the time to tweet his thoughts about the Taoiseach’s replies to his leader Mary Lou.

“Micheál Martin in total denial about housing, health and cost of living crises in Leaders’ Questions today. Like Waylon Smithers, he is detached from reality, out of touch & out of ideas…#Time4Change,” he dashed off while Leaders’ Questions was still in session.

Unfortunately multitasking Eoin tweeted a picture of Simpson’s character Monty Burns with his sizzling social media burn. Fortunately his error was quickly corrected and Smithers got the heave-ho in the updated version.

Miserly

The spiraling cost of living – “even pasta has gone by 5 per cent in the last two months” said Alan Kelly – was held up against the Government’s intention to give people €113.50 off their electricity bill, a move which was rubbished by various speakers as “a joke”, “miserly”, “insulting” and “tokenistic”.

But the Taoiseach said “targeted ways” were needed to help people achieve acceptable living standards “without adding to the inflationary cycle”. He kept mentioning “the Vincentian Model” as a good system to follow, but didn’t explain what that is.

“We need to avoid a wages spiral,” he cautioned.

“You didn’t worry about a wages spiral for the general secretary of the Department of Health,” shot back Sinn Féin’s Matt Carthy.

Elsewhere around Leinster House the canteen was purring again with all tables reinstated and the lunchtime buzz well and truly back. TDs were allowed bring guests into the building again. And the stools returned to their rightful place at the counter in the bar.

Business was very quiet, though. It was well past teatime before the first visitor crossed the threshold for a drink. Anthony Monaghan from Tipperary earned that singular honour, up at the bar enjoying a quick pint courtesy of his host Mattie McGrath, who was delighted that his guest was the first visitor in almost two years to raise a glass in the Dáil bar.

The floodgates are open.

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