Miriam Lord: Disciplinarian Varadkar puts Ministers on duty

Galvanising presence: Taoiseach rallies the troops for Leaders’ Questions

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has thanked the Rubberbandtits for their advice in his second video message. The Limerick comedy duo had tweeted about his first video message "get an ould mic and don't record in a room full of echos". Video: @FineGael


Nice to see the Taoiseach attracting such a good turnout from Ministers for his twice-weekly stint at Leaders’ Questions in the Dáil. Nothing like a bit of novelty value to get bums on seats.

In the final months of the former taoiseach’s long reign, Enda Kenny played to ever dwindling numbers on his own side of the house. Fewer and fewer backbenchers bothered turning up for what is supposed to be a show of support from them for their leader, their government and its policies. But with the boss on the way out, most of them couldn’t be bothered. Ministers were equally remiss in this regard.

Leo, though, has been performing in the galvanising presence of most of his Cabinet team.

The Independents are a law unto themselves and rarely put in an appearance, although Finian McGrath and “Boxer” Moran are enthusiastic attendees and fly the Independent Alliance flag whenever they can from the junior ministerial ranks.

Appearances, it seems, are very important to our new Taoiseach. His skilfully executed plan to take over the Fine Gael leadership demonstrated an ability to think and act strategically. And last week, he sent out a message to his Ministers which suggests he was a most assiduous understudy while waiting to take over as leading man.

Since the 32nd Dáil opened for business last year, the feeble display of solidarity from the Government benches has been in marked contrast to the healthy numbers fielded each week by Fianna Fail and Sinn Féin.

In the case of Fianna Fail, some of Micheál Martin’s troops have taken to arriving far in advance of Leaders’ Questions in an effort to nab those prized spots in the camera frame beside their boss. Almost all his TDs muster in the chamber for the session.

Sinn Féin TDs always put up a united front when their leader is speaking in the Dáil. Gerry Adams is never abandoned by his troops and is always guaranteed a large and respectful audience. Both parties have been putting Fine Gael to shame.

But things are changing on the discipline front. We hear that a communication went out from the Fine Gael whip’s office last week to all the private secretaries instructing them to make sure their Ministers attend Leaders’ Questions.

Not only that, but, where possible, they should gather before the event outside the whip’s office and then “parade” into the chamber behind the Taoiseach.

That’s right. Parade.

It’s early days yet and the procession has been a little raggedy thus far, with around half a dozen dutiful Ministers traipsing down the central steps behind Leo. Others have rushed in later, filling the front bench for an unprecedented three Leaders’ Questions in a row.

Private secretaries now get a text before each session to remind them to get their Ministers out in time for the big parade. It’s exactly three weeks since Leo marched in the Dublin Pride parade. Maybe that’s what gave him the idea.

Why stop there? Maybe a band could lead in the Ministers – a different group for each session. And floats. It isn’t a parade without floats. One for each department, on a revolving basis. It would really catch on.

Please Leo. Make it happen.

Leo has new wheeze to manage the message

Every directive they fire out will be called a SCUD. Its members will be SCUM. The small team will be a little SCUT. What’s not to like about Leo’s new communications wheeze? He is calling it the Strategic Communications Unit.

It is not the same as the Government Information Service. “It will be something new. It will try to pull together all of the communications that occur across Government.”

Opposition leaders wanted to know all about it on Wednesday. They think it’s going to be a thinly disguised political operation based in the heart of the Taoiseach’s department and dedicated to trumpeting his administration’s message in advance of the next general election.

Varadkar stressed the new unit is a very transparent and independent attempt to explain to people what the Government is doing on their behalf. He said that for all the money spent on communications by departments and various agencies, he doesn’t believe an adequately coherent message is getting out.

This “small unit” will be an independent entity working from his department and it aims to address “the public and relevant stakeholders”. The work of the new Strategic Communications Unit will “complement” the work of the GIS and existing media operations “to focus on strategic communications across government”.

Micheál Martin was a bit suspicious. “It sounds very much to me like this is a political machine that is being put in at the heart of the Taoiseach’s office to deliver a coherent political message on behalf of the Government.”

Brendan Howlin had a different name for the new body. “The Shane Ross monitoring unit.”

That’s out for a start, Martin told Varadkar. “You never co-ordinate Shane Ross with what you’re doing yourselves, so the idea that this strategic sort of communications is going to bring greater coherence to the Government message isn’t the issue.”

The Fianna Fail leader turned to television comedy to skewer what he thinks Leo is up to. “Fundamentally, it seems to me that what we are getting is a beefed-up political operation, a bit like that noted New Labour operative in the UK, Alastair Campbell. I was watching a comedy recently — The Thick of It – and I just hope you don’t end up there, Taoiseach, in terms of that type of operation.”

Howlin is clearly a fan of the award-winning political satire which introduced foul mouthed spindoctor Malcolm Tucker to delighted viewers. “He [Varadkar] would be so lucky to have it.”

“Yeah,” agreed Martin, “but I’m thinking in terms of the comedy side of it.”

The Taoiseach said the unit hasn’t been set up yet. “It will not be political. It will not be staffed by political appointees. People will be seconded from other parts of the Civil Service and public service.”

There is much speculation that marketing whizz John Concannon, the man behind the successful 1916 Centenary celebrations and the director of Creative Ireland, is Leo’s choice to head up his small SCUT.

Creative Ireland is the Government’s 2016 legacy programme. According to its Twitter profile, Creative Ireland is “a wellbeing strategy that places culture and creativity at the centre of our lives”.

According to its website, it has five (rather baffling) “pillars”. In a national policy context, “Creative Ireland will bring an enhanced level of coordination, focus and leadership to existing policies and initiatives across national and local government, State agencies, the arts and culture sector, Gaeltacht and Irish language organisations, and will provide linkages to the private business and NGO sectors.”

Sounds just like what Leo needs for his new unit. “Joined-up government” is what the PM in The Thick of It would have said.

Although to be fair to the very smooth and charming Concannon, he is definitely no Malcolm Tucker.

The fine art of Cabinet committee maintenance

Leo and the art of Cabinet committee maintenance got an airing on Tuesday. The Taoiseach is rejigging the Cabinet committee set-up and his Opposition counterparts are not entirely impressed.

“The intent in the new configuration of Cabinet committees is to give a sharper co-ordinated approach on policy matters to ensure a whole-of-Government perspective,” he told them, showing off his fluent command of management speak after just a month in office.

In this reconfigured world, the broad area of the arts is now part of “Cabinet sub-committee B”.

There were calls for a standalone committee. Richard Boyd Barrett wasn’t holding out much hope, given “the political establishment . . . the people who have dominated the State for the past 75 years” has never really recognised the value, potential, work or contribution of artists.

“There is probably nothing that has enhanced Ireland’s reputation at every level on the international stage more than arts, poetry and music, yet the level of interest of the political establishment beyond rhetoric is pathetic,” said the TD for Dún Laoghaire.

Brendan Howlin took issue with his implied criticism of arts ministers down through the years. The Labour leader couldn’t ignore this slight on his party’s favourite former minister for the arts.

“I’m glad that it is actually external artists who make the judgment on the value of previous administrations rather than Deputy Boyd Barrett. Their view of ministers such as Michael D Higgins and the contribution he, in his time, and many of his successors made...”

Boyd Barrett made a swift intervention. “I wasn’t talking about Michael D.”

“Ooh, you disparaged everybody, actually, in one broad stroke,” replied Brendan.

“Michael D was never part of the political establishment,” countered RBB. Perish the thought.

Micheál Martin was somewhat perplexed. “He was a member of the Labour Party. He was a minister of government.”

Aaaah but... Richard had an answer for that. “He was on the left wing of the Labour Party.”

“He was mainstream pretty quickly,” chuckled Micheál.

But no. Not in Boyd Barrett’s admiring eyes. “He was an honourable exception.”

Take a bow, Michael D. And exit stage left.

Dáil’s out for summer – TDs hit the town

The Dáil has risen. Thank God, sez you.

The schedule was packed this week in an attempt to clear some of the legislative decks before the long summer break.

The parties (and the press) held end of season soirees to mark their blessed release from Dáil business until September.

Sinn Féin and Labour had nights out on Thursday. Labour staff went to a favourite haunt, Dan McGrattan’s excellent emporium just up the lane opposite Government Buildings.

Sinn Féin opted for a night out at Leopardstown races, but their TDs had to stay behind in Leinster House because of the late sitting. In his absence, Cork East TD Pat Buckley was the toast of the night for coming up trumps with a hot racing tip which saw his colleagues clean up on his 10 to 1 shot.

On Wednesday night, Fianna Fáilers repaired to the nearby Hibernian Way for drinks in the popular Lemon & Duke lounge and their Fine Gael counterparts relaxed around the corner in Cafe En Seine.

Parched members of the Leinster House press gallery gathered upstairs in Toner’s bar where they combined the traditional end-of-session high jinks with a warm send-off for colleague and proud son of Clare, Paraic Gallagher, who is moving on to pastures new following many years of distinguished service as Newstalk’s political correspondent.

The three groups then converged on the 37 Dawson Street lounge. It was like Dawn of the Living Dead in Leinster House on Thursday.

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