Miriam Lord: Finian McGrath more skulk than usual swagger
Minister of State ‘like dog who cocked his leg against the sideboard, feigning nonchalance’
The Minister of State for Disability Finian McGrath shot his mouth off in an interview at the weekend, claiming that gardaí are persecuting innocent drivers. File photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Finian McGrath was parked in the front row of the Government benches for the two main sessions of Leaders’ Questions this week. It’s almost like he was ordered to sit there, say nothing and take his medicine, which was surely coming.
He didn’t look his chirpy self – more skulk than customary swagger. Like the dog who cocked his leg against the sideboard, trying to feign nonchalance but waiting for the wrath to descend.
The Minister of State for Disability Issues (with special responsibility for buoying up Shane Ross at the cabinet table) shot his mouth off in an interview with the Sunday Independent at the weekend, claiming that gardaí are persecuting innocent drivers with breathalysers at the most ridiculous times of the day in a brazen effort to undermine his mentor Ross, the minister who recently updated the driving laws.
Apparently the hangover police are deliberately targeting people dropping their children off at school and worshippers on their way to 10am Mass. When the irritated drivers complain, the guards say “don’t blame us, missus, this is all Shane Ross’s fault”.
Before the day was out, Finian was backtracking faster than a squad car in reverse and apologising to everyone
Don’t just take Finian’s word for it. He said TDs from all parties have been telling him about constituents who are up in arms over this form of political policing. In the interview, the Independent Alliance deputy for Dublin Bay North went so far as to suggest that Drew Harris, the Garda Commissioner, should “de-politicise” the force.
It must be very distressing for the Independent Alliance to hear that An Garda Síochána is actively briefing against their leader Ross, aka Winston Churchtown, particularly as Winston is the patron saint of Stepaside Garda Station and when a general election is in the offing. This might explain Finian’s outburst in the Sindo.
It was rather baffling. From this column’s embedded position in Dublin Bay North, the bagging of squiffy citizens on the mid-morning grocery run to SuperValu isn’t one of the burning issues of the day. But if –and some rural TDs are very annoyed about aspects of Ross’s legislation – a cohort of voters is not happy, Finian is the man who will step up to the plate and selflessly throw himself in the path of oncoming headlines to support their cause.
The suspicion is that his injudicious comments were a clumsy effort to deflect the blowback from Winston’s blow-in-the-bag controversy onto An Garda Síochána, which follows the rules he set out for them in legislation. And also a publicity effort for Finian.
At least his remarks provided further proof that the urban-rural divide isn’t all it’s cracked up to be by indignant deputies on the Independent benches cooking up yarns for local papers.
It seems what goes for the sozzled daily communicants of South Kerry also applies to the footless school-run moms of Dublin Bay North, all of them besieged by breathalyser-toting guards hell bent on proving it isn’t just the seat belts that are buckled.
But junior minister McGrath overstepped the swagger with his political policing soundbite. His Government colleagues cried foul. The Minister for Justice expressed outrage. “Bizarre” and “dangerous” was how Charlie Flanagan described the remarks. Jim O’Callaghan, his Fianna Fáil opposite number, called for an apology.
Before the day was out, Finian was backtracking faster than a squad car in reverse and apologising to everyone. But he said what he said.
The affair was building up a nice head of steam. Garda representative bodies went on parade. Victim support groups protested. By Monday, there were mutterings in the media about McGrath being “under pressure”.
The return of Dáil business on Tuesday was awaited with interest.
In a slow week, Finian’s hide would have been roasted over the coals. In a slow week, the legs of his high chair at the Cabinet table would have been sawn down by now.
Thank heavens for Brexit. Filling all the gaps between inadequate public housing policy, the latest hospital trolley crisis and the Government selflessly ignoring the incoming election season by bravely dodging an increase in property tax.
Brexit, when the big wigs are too busy to be bothered by a normal Government “crisis”.
Brexit saved the day for Finian, sitting for two days in the front row, waiting for someone to stand and call for his high chair on a plate. Sadly, a traumatised Winston Churchtown was too upset on both days to enter the chamber and sit with him for moral support.
Nobody said a thing about Finian and the politics of chancing your arm with outrageous statements which you can immediately withdraw like a Westminster Brexiteer after the latest indicative vote.
Nothing. On Wednesday, after enduring Leaders’ Questions and the opening questions from main Opposition players in the follow-up session, he scuttled away.
So he missed Charlie McConalogue’s intervention. Charlie is Fianna Fáil’s agriculture spokesman.
“I thought I might be falling over in anticipation today when I would be asking this question because Minister Finian McGrath was actually in the Chamber. But as usual, he absconded before we could actually get to promised legislation and avoided answering any questions,” he began in an inelegant preamble to a short question about HSE funding for two care centres in Donegal.
For Finian’s recent outburst had rendered Charlie incomprehensible.
“Of course, Taoiseach, if any of us, when we look back to our schooldays had been able to turn up and shoot the breeze and fist-pump and high-five our friends and shoot the breeze about a summer trip to North Korea or about a grant to get Granny more money we would all have enjoyed ourselves.”
Leo Varadkar furrowed his brow.
We all did.
“And I think it’s high time that you as Taoiseach actually talk to Minister McGrath and his Independent Alliance colleagues to ensure that they come to the chamber here to account for their actions. Minister McGrath in his interview in the Sunday Independent at the weekend created a fine mess for himself and, indeed, the Government and even he wasn’t brazen enough not to appear in the chamber today but I’ll bet removed himself. But Taoiseach, you might be willing to tolerate this as long as he doesn’t raise any heckles about you using the office of Taoiseach to write fan mail to Kylie Minogue, let alone raise any heckles about the performance of the Government in health or housing.”
Charlie then pointed out that the Minister for Disability Issues promised funding to two organisations but it hasn’t materialised.
“Can you, since he’s not here Taoiseach, take him up and actually ask that he would follow up on that and also maybe ask if he and his Independent Alliance colleagues would actually attend this chamber to be actually held to account for their performances?”
“That was a long contribution.”
Willie O’Dea piped up from across the floor.
“But it was very entertaining.”