Miriam Lord: Here’s a tip, Senator – learn where the mute button is

Martin Conway of FG was overheard doing some side business during a virtual meeting

Racing heart: Senator Martin Conway. Photograph: Tom Honan

“Eh, I think you’re on mute there, deputy. Unmute yourself there please, deputy. Try the bottom-left-hand corner.”

“Can you hear me now? Aah for fec ... No wait, wait … Can you hear me now?”

“We’ll have to come back to you.”

The soundtrack of Oireachtas committees for the past year has been heavily influenced by the vagaries of online interaction as politicians attempt to participate remotely in discussions. The mute button is causing havoc, with TDs and Senators regularly appearing in "all picture and no sound" format.


But at a recent hearing of the Joint Committee on Health, Clare-based Fine Gael Senator Martin Conway bucked the trend by forgetting to mute his microphone after his contribution, subsequently "audio-bombing" an exchange between Fianna Fáil Senator Lorraine Clifford-Lee and Ronan Glynn, the deputy chief medical officer.

Clifford-Lee wants to know about pop-up walk-in Covid-19 testing centres, one of which has just been opened in Balbriggan, which is in her constituency. Does Dr Glynn view them as a success and has there been a reduction in community transmission in areas where they were established?

It seems he is communing with his bookie. "Anyway," he mumbles straight into the live feed from Committee Room 2, 'I want to do a €20 double'

Dr Glynn commences his reply: “So, I do regard them as a success, principally because they have afforded an opportunity for various stakeholders and various organisations in the … ”

A disembodied voice breaks into the exchange. It sounds like somebody answering a phone call.

“Howaya doin’?” drawls Martin Conway in return, for it is he.

Ronan Glynn looks up, stops for a second, then continues.

Next, the voice of an Oireachtas official cuts in over the indistinct conversation still coming from Martin's office. In urgent tones he tells the chairman, Sinn Féin's Sean Crowe: "Senator Conway needs to be muted."

Glynn, appearing via a large TV screen on the wall of Committee Room number 2, sits back, fascinated.

Conway speaks again. It seems he is communing with his bookie. “Anyway,” he mumbles straight into the live feed from Committee Room 2, “I want to do a €20 double”.

Crowe apologises to the witness – who is doing his best to stop smirking – before shouting loudly into the ether.

“Martin Conway. You’re on your phone there. Please, will you mute yourself?”

“Sorry,” croaks Martin, sloping off sheepishly.

“Sorry, Ronan,” says the chairman.

Fairyhouse was on that evening.

After all that, wonder did Martin land his double?

He did it the Feeney Way

American Philanthropist Chuck Feeney has always insisted that his name never appear on any of the hundreds of university, hospital and other buildings and projects he has funded in Ireland and around the world.

Feeney, who turned 90 on Friday, likes to do things his way.

To mark his birthday, his alma mater, Cornell University (to which he donated more than $1 billion) has found a way of getting around the ban.

With Feeney’s permission, it has renamed East Avenue – the road that bisects the red-brick university in New York State, Feeney Way.

He agreed to the request, saying: "Cornell opened promising avenues for me." The New Jersey native became known as "The Sandwich Man" during his colleges days when he sold sandwiches on campus to make ends meet. He credited Cornell for inspiring his success in co-creating the retail giant Duty Free Shoppers.

"The Hotel School nurtured my instincts and my interests in international business opportunities. It was not too big a leap from selling sandwiches for hefty margins at Big Red [college sports] games to selling cars and luxury items to international travellers."

The avenue’s new name underscores the “Feeney way” for rich people to use their wealth and follow his example of giving while living. His foundation, Atlantic Philanthropies, closed last year having donated his fortune of $8 billion mainly to education and health projects around the world.

Former Irish Times journalist Conor O’Clery, who got to know the man during his years as Washington Correspondent for this newspaper, was among many friends in Ireland offering their good wishes to Feeney on his 90th. Conor still keeps in touch with the philanthropist.

Others sending birthday congratulations to San Francisco included President Micheal D Higgins, Taoiseach Micheál Martin and the heads of universities here.

Atlantic Philanthropies invested $1.3 billion in the Republic to advance higher education, human rights and services for the young and old, and $570 million went to Northern Ireland.

In his video message the Taoiseach credited the businessman with changing the lives of children and young people across Ireland through funding for educational projects. He also thanked the reclusive philanthropist for transforming the level of research in Ireland through his generosity and foresight.

As a former minister for education, Micheál Martin spoke of Feeney’s “extraordinary interest” in education and research and recalled fond memories of their first meeting in the Department of Education more than 20 years ago.

“Your approach to philanthropy has truly been a game changer, both in the actual impact of your support for projects and causes and also for the very powerful example you have set all over the world.

“Thank you, Chuck. I trust that you; your wife, Helga; and your family are enjoying your new pace of life in San Francisco, a beautiful city I know well, a sister city with my native Cork, where, when circumstances allow, I would love to get the chance to bring you to see the truly inspirational Marymount hospice, a project where again your generosity, was such a decisive factor.”

But only nurses are allowed give Micheál the needle at photo opportunities, where he is well out of 'arm's way

Cormac McQuinn, the latest addition to our super soar-away political team in The Irish Times, surveyed TDs aged 60 and above earlier this week to find out if they intended to register for a Covid-19 jab and if they would accept the AstraZeneca vaccine if offered it. The vast majority said they would, with two preferring to keep their own counsel on the matter and three not responding.

The Taoiseach (60) can’t wait to get the call so he can roll up his sleeve for the cameras and let the whole country see him bravely allowing a nurse to give him the needle. It’s a good news story; why wouldn’t he?

But only nurses are allowed give Micheál the needle at photo opportunities, where he is well out of ’arm’s way. We hear he is down to do another nice picture story next week, this time at the zoo. Strictly photographers only, presumably unless a few veterinary nurses can be rounded up to join him. Definitely no reporters allowed, because the Taoiseach’s people believe he should only have to deal with one shower of animals at a time.

And the journalists would give Micheál the wrong sort of needle with their questions about vaccine rollouts and other issues when he wants to promote happy thoughts about reopening outdoor attractions such a zoos, pet farms and heritage sites.

But back to Cormac, working his way through the list of TDs until he reached John Lahart, Fianna Fáil deputy for Dublin South West. John wasn't too thrilled about getting the call because he hasn't hit the 60 mark and has a while to go yet. And he is a bit tired of people asking him about getting his Covid-19 jab.

John is a youthful-looking 56 years old but someone posted his details on Wikipedia a number of years ago when he was a county councillor, supplying a date of birth that was four years out. This was finally changed on the website after he became a TD last year, but in the meantime a number of political reference books had already run with the incorrect date.

Now Lahart can’t get the vaccine, even though everybody thinks he is in the right age bracket. Which would he prefer – getting his Covid jab or getting back his correct age?

“Definitely getting the right age.”

A chorus of Crowes

The two main Government parties were delighted with the Seanad by-election wins by their agreed candidates, Maria Byrne (Fine Gael) and Gerry Horkan (Fianna Fáil).

Horkan’s supporters told Gerry they were expecting him to foot the bill for several rounds of celebratory drinks in The Goat in south Dublin once it reopens. And Maria will be able to assume her coaching/supporting duties with the Oireachtas rugby team whenever they start playing again.

Meanwhile, some Coalition politicians (Greens included) were caustically noting that Dublin lord mayor Hazel Chu's vote was in inverse proportion to the level of media coverage she received.

And speaking of the Greens, Wexford-based Fianna Fáil Senator Malcolm Byrne has had to respectfully decline the party's kind invitation to attend a ministerial planning meeting in Kilkenny. Rather unusually, there are two Malcolms in Leinster House these days, the other one is Malcolm Noonan, Minister of State for Heritage and Electoral Reform.

Maybe he might go to Kilkenny instead.

For such a small pool of people, a lot of TDs and politicians share surnames. There are four Murphys and three Collinses in the Dáil, and five Smiths/Smyths and 14 sets of two. There are two Crowes in the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party. TD Cathal is from Clare and Senator Ollie is from Galway, and the two friends are sometimes referred to as “An Attempted Murder” when seen together in company.

That would be by the smart wing of the party, the ones who know the collection noun for crows.