Miriam Lord: Empty-theatre eeriness as Cabinet takes their seats

Convention Centre houses high drama as political voices cry out in the social distance

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar: Admits it is “very unusual” not to have a senior minister from the west. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar: Admits it is “very unusual” not to have a senior minister from the west. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

In his first Dáil appearance as Heather Humphreys’s replacement, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar confirmed what many were thinking about the botched delivery of Cabinet jobs west of the Shannon – it was a case of cock-up rather than conspiracy.

With Taoiseach Micheál Martin back at base busy working himself into his new brief, his predecessor remained in the spotlight on Tuesday, opening for the Government at the start of a day-long Dáil debate on spending. It wasn’t long before Leo let the cat out of the bag about Saturday night’s Cromwellian damnation of the entire west of Ireland by their new political overlords.

It seems the parties in the tripartite government simply couldn’t get their act together, which bodes well for the future.

Sinn Féin’s Claire Kerrane told the freshly minted Minister for Enterprise and Trade that the non-appointment of a senior representative from the region for the first time in the history of the State was a “huge mistake” and the electorate would not forget it. The TD for Roscommon-Galway doesn’t doubt they will try to “overcompensate” by appointing a clatter of westerners as Ministers of State, but “the damage is done”.

The Tánaiste tried to explain what happened, while making sure to point out that such an omission never happened when he was in charge of appointing his own cabinet. “But I think when you have three parties doing it, and perhaps not co-ordinating it, you turn up with unusual results.”

Such as fury from Falcarragh to Foynes and a miffed political martyr in Mayo.

If a camel is a horse designed by committee, then the cabinet Micheál, Leo and Eamon built is the Merrion Street equivalent and it’s given a lot of people the hump.

But they are anxious to make amends. Varadkar admitted “it is very unusual” not to have a senior minister in Connacht and promised they would do better in the next round of appointments.

Ruffled feathers

It would be interesting to know when the penny dropped and the Big Three realised they made a complete dog’s dinner of their historic cabinet, the one which officially ended Civil War politics by pitting one half of the country against the other.

As part of the Government’s rearguard action to smooth ruffled feathers in the west, the Tánaiste offered comforting words. After all “We DO have Hildegarde Naughten and Dara Calleary there” he cooed, referring to the two “super junior” ministers from Galway and Mayo.

Contrary to popular belief, they are full members of cabinet. Oh yes. They are full members of cabinet even if they are not members of cabinet in the constitutional sense.

It doesn’t matter that they have no vote either because the Cabinet hasn’t voted on anything for the guts of 40 years.

“So their weight and voice will be equal to those of any other member of the Cabinet and I want people to know that.”

And in the meantime, before it’s properly decent to have a reshuffle, here’s a rake of Ministers of State to be getting on with . . .

If the Dáil had been sitting in Leinster House instead of the Convention Centre in Dublin’s docklands, there might have been angry scenes and heated exchanges about the 33rd government’s inaugural clanger, but the temporary venue is a political passion killer.

Even if all 160 TDs were present – most of them high-tailed it back to the cosier confines of Leinster House when not required for speaking purposes – they would have been rattling around in a 2,000-seater auditorium. There is an empty-theatre eeriness about the proceedings.

The Ceann Comhairle does his best to spot speakers from behind his drab desk in the middle of the stage. He couldn’t see Leo Varadkar when it was time to begin, scanning the empty rows stretching before him.

“Is the Tánaiste here?”

Ushers’ torches

A door opened halfway down and Leo beetled in with his new haircut. He was escorted to his place by two ushers, one of whom held a seating map. It might be a good idea to give the ushers torches, then they could shine them on the seats to help TDs find their socially distanced designated berths, then sell them popcorn.

There were a few frontbench colleagues scattered around in Leo’s general vicinity. Heather Humphreys (social protection, community and rural developments and the islands) was in the same row as Norma Foley (education), although they were well apart.

When Norma arrived, Heather had to move out for her to shuffle past. All that was missing was a chorus of “sorry, sorry, sorry, beg your pardon, sorry, sorry, oops, sorry . . .” as she felt her way along the row.

It’s only a matter of time before TDs start opening bags of crisps and rustling sweet wrappers during Leaders’ Questions. The pop-up seats are fancier than the ones in the Dáil. They are described frighteningly as “premium Figueras ‘eight-hour’ chairs”.

There won’t be any need for that.

Fianna Fáil’s Niall Collins rose to speak on the revised budget questions but the Ceann Comhairle stopped him as soon as he started.

“Sorry, am I sharing?” Collins asked, unaware that a party colleague was speaking in the same slot.

“Deputy Troy is gesticulating furiously from the gallery” explained the chair, motioning towards the balcony where stood the TD for Longford Westmeath, like he was auditioning for Romeo and Juliet.

Dress circle

Collins couldn’t see him, as he was below in the stalls.

“Where is he?” snapped Niall impatiently, looking around. But he couldn’t glimpse his colleague waving an order paper to gain attention and tipping dangerously towards the edge of the dress circle.

“Don’t fall over there Deputy Troy. Please,” cried Seán Ó Fearghaíl with exquisite hamminess.

Now Robert appeared to be trying out for Riverdance.

“We spot you. Don’t worry,” boomed the Ceann Comhairle, just as we feared the deputy might plunge into the parterre with no musicians in the orchestra pit to do him justice.

“So I have to share, I presume, yeah?” said Limerick County’s Collins to the vast swathe of empty seats around him while Troy, out of eyeshot, subsided into his premium Figueras, exhausted.

Niall sounded disappointed, to add to his disappointment over not getting a senior job on Saturday. Probably a rap on the knuckles for his involvement in Fianna Fáil’s Votegate, War of the Buttons embarrassment. Still, at least he’s not in the Seanad, like his partner in crime, Timmy Dooley.

“It’s quite hard to make yourself seen when you’re so far away” murmured Robert from the balcony when he finally got to speak. Richard Boyd Barrett, on the other hand. You can tell that the People Before Profit comes from a family of theatrical greats. He has no problem projecting in the Convention Centre auditorium.

The same might have been said of Mary Lou McDonald, who is similarly vocally accomplished, but she was in Belfast at the funeral of ex-IRA chief Bobby Storey, marching along in the thick of a Covid-19 regulation-defying cortege.

She’s had the virus, unlike her Sinn Féin colleagues who travelled from Dublin with her.

It’s a pity they couldn’t find any masks all the same.

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