Miriam Lord: Election talk grips TDs as Higgins comes to terms

Sparse Dáil attendance as Deputies prepare to party with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle

The duchess and duke of Sussex with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar as they arrive at Government Buildings during their visit to Dublin. Photograph: Paul Faith/PA

The duchess and duke of Sussex with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar as they arrive at Government Buildings during their visit to Dublin. Photograph: Paul Faith/PA

 

“We need a large national conversation,” opined Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, indicating she wouldn’t mind seeing a presidential election later this year.

“We need a large gin and tonic,” sighed her audience on the plinth, as the prospect of an autumn bloodbath on the doorsteps loomed.

Never a dull moment these days, despite the washed-out feeling in Leinster House as Dáil Éireann prepares to rise for summer.

Election talk filled the air on Tuesday morning after President Michael D Higgins broke the hardly surprising news that he wants to stay on for another seven years. Should there be a contest in October, he will be the tallest candidate in the field because he is standing on his record.

As a nation reeled from this bolt of the bleedin’ obvious from the presidential blue, McDonald was first to get over the shock. If Michael D is expecting a Sinn Féin-style coronation he may have to think again. Not long after he issued his brief statement, Mary Lou indicated she would like to see a contest for the top job, but that’s not her call. The party’s ruling ard comhairle will decide whether to nominate a candidate on Saturday.

“It is my view that now is a time where we need a large national conversation about Ireland, not just over the coming seven years but beyond that,” the Sinn Féin president told reporters, drawing on her party’s vast experience of presidential contests down through the years, which would be nil.

Elected unopposed

Her predecessor, Gerry Adams, was elected leader on 35 occasions and was returned unopposed each time because no member of the party ever ran against him. Mary Lou didn’t face any opposition for the presidency either after Gerry stepped down.

For sheer novelty interest alone, how can they miss up on the chance to experience the thrill of a real presidential election?

Meanwhile, prospective candidate Senator Gerard Craughwell huffed and puffed on the plinth about Michael D pulling a fast one and declaring so late that people like him hardly had any time to prepare a campaign.

There was no mention in the Dáil of the developing Áras an Uachtaráin situation and the lack of bodies on the press gallery was only partly down to the President, whose office indicated he would be available to talk after an engagement in Mayo, thus precipitating an emergency deployment of pol corrs to Castlebar.

The other reason there was such sparse attendance was the fact that royal newly-weds Prince Harry and Meghan Markle were due to visit Leo Varadkar next door in Government Buildings and reporters were sequestered for hours in a decontamination zone across the city waiting to be bussed to Merrion Street with their Garda minders.

A large number of TDs and senators were looking forward to the garden party later in the evening at the British ambassador’s residence in south county Dublin. Senator Catherine Noone wore a very summery maxi-dress for the occasion, much to the bafflement of a couple of older male senators who couldn’t understand why she was wearing “some class of an evening gown” to a Seanad sitting.

Inner sanctum

Noses, of course, were out of joint. Par for the course when there are egos and VIPs and guest lists. While the Cabinet was invited, not all Cabinet members were equal. It seems that a select few were invited into the inner sanctum, where they could hob-nob in private with the royal celebrities.

The Tánaiste, Simon Coveney, was obviously there and we hear Ministers Charlie Flanagan and Simon Harris were on the list along with backbencher Kate O’Connell.

With so much going on outside the chamber, it was hard to concentrate on the matter in hand at Leaders’ Questions. Brexit was the main item on the day after UK prime minister Theresa May lost two senior ministers amid the continuing Brexit shambles.

It’s hugely important and also a very fascinating political issue. But, by heavens, it can also be very hard to follow.

There was a lot of talk of the red, white and blue-red lines, White Papers and blueprints

When McDonald asked the Taoiseach about the Government’s current position on Brexit and wondered if it was still open for negotiation, he replied: “I suppose there is always a fair bit of comitology when it comes to these European issues”.

Comitology? What’s that?

According to the European Commission’s lengthy webpage headed “Comitology in Brief”, it “refers to a set of procedures through which EU countries control how the European Commission implements EU law. Broadly speaking, before it can implement an EU legal act, the commission must consult, for the detailed implementation of measures it proposes, a committee where every EU country is represented.

You’re welcome.

Leo tried to explain how things are complicated in Brexitland.

“There is ‘the customs union’ and there is ‘a customs union’; there is ‘the backstop’ and there is ‘a backstop’. When we talk about the backstop we refer to the text produced by the EU 27 in March. When the UK talks about ‘a backstop’ they are accepting that there has to be a backstop and they do accept that it has to form part of a withdrawal agreement. But the legal text of it could be different to the one produced in March by the EU 27.”

As you might imagine, the chamber was riveted.

There was a lot of talk of the red, white and blue-red lines, White Papers and blueprints.

New direction

The Fianna Fáil leader referred to the departure of May’s foreign secretary, Boris Johnson. He never produced a Brexit blueprint or a coherent alternative, said Micheál Martin, quoting Johnson’s “the beginning of the end of a dream” line. Dreams seldom reflect reality, he pointed out, before giving credit to the prime minister for “navigating this new direction” in difficult political circumstances.

The Sinn Féin and Labour leaders both called for a special EU summit to be held before the crunch one in October when the legal framework for Brexit is agreed.

The Taoiseach didn’t rule it out. “We are all going to be there in September in Salzburg and if it makes sense we will do that.”

Brendan Howlin argued that the Irish backstop position should be formally on the agenda in Austria, then “leaving it in the general pot of issues to be determined in October”. He pointed out that time was of the essence as the UK position had changed so many times and there was also “a real possibility that Theresa May’s minority government will fall, triggering a UK general election”.

The Taoiseach agreed that political instability was unhelpful. “We see across the water in the United Kingdom the real effects of political instability – a minority government, a confidence-and-supply agreement with another party, the risk of an early election and none of which is good for the United Kingdom . . . and the same applies here. We need political stability here in Ireland.”

The Opposition started laughing as Leo declared we don’t want to be going into the crucial autumn months “without political stability”.

Because it is “very much in the national interest”.

The Fianna Fáilers were in fits, what with all the fighting election talk emanating from Fine Gael ranks lately.

Brendan Howlin rose to his feet. “I never thought I would say this, but the UK government makes your Government look positively stable.”

Minister for Health Simon Harris smirked. “Aah, that’s a bit of a stretch,” he said.

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