Miriam Lord: Is Darragh O’Brien finding his feet in housing?

Praise for O’Brien’s concrete efforts and thanks to the Mayo women who gave voice to the House

Darragh O’Brien is compared to former US president Ronald Reagan. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Darragh O’Brien is compared to former US president Ronald Reagan. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

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Is Darragh O’Brien finding his feet in housing? The Malahide man certainly seems less combative these days, his work rate is impressive and a number of colleagues have remarked on his increased willingness to listen to and act on constructive suggestions.

The frustrated hordes priced out of the housing market wouldn’t agree. O’Brien is in a results-based, bricks-and-mortar business and the jury is out until he produces concrete evidence of affordability and supply.

The Green’s Vincent P Martin went overboard in his praise of bruiser O’Brien in the Seanad on Friday morning, at one point comparing the Minister for Housing to former US president Ronald Reagan.

“If Ronald Reagan was called ‘the Great Communicator’, I think you’re rapidly getting the reputation of being ‘the Great Listener” gushed Vincent P as Senators from all sides fell around the place laughing.

There was a special round of applause in the Seanad this week for the two Mayo women who have been the voice of Leinster House for more than three decades

As the Monaghan-born senior counsel rhapsodised on, even Darragh looked embarrassed behind his Dubs face mask.

“You are welcome to the chamber, Minister, in a week that once again, you are thinking outside the box,” he began, noting reports that public housing is to be built on public lands in Dublin and Cork. Speaking as someone who suspects that the Civil Service or permanent government often stifles “the individual innovation” of Ministers, “that certainly cannot be said for you”, quivered the smitten Senator.

You see, housing is probably the most important ministerial brief in the country at the moment “and you seem to be throwing everything at it, Minister, and you deserve support from all sides of the House and I commend you for your innovative, independent thinking – radical in places”.

The ushers rushed to locate the sick bags for urgent distribution around the chamber.

But Vincent P wasn’t finished.

It was great to see Darragh O’Brien looking after that “significant majority” called the Squeezed Middle who will now qualify for cost rental housing.

“I just commend this Government,” he burbled, adding he believes the results will be evident by the end of the Government’s full term of office.

“So I’d like to commend you,” he said to Darragh, who was laughing because everyone else was still laughing at him being compared to Ronnie Reagan. “Continue the great work.”

Fianna Fáil Senator Shane Cassells, who was in the chair, said: “Thank you very much, Senator, for your comparison to Ronald Reagan for Minister O’Brien. I was going to say that instead of tearing down walls he’s trying to build walls but that might mean I would be comparing him to a different US president.”

Rónán Mullen also got in on the act.

“I’d also like to welcome Dutch “the Gipper” O’Brien to the House.”

Voices of the House

There was a special round of applause in the Seanad this week for the two Mayo women who have been the voice of Leinster House for more than three decades.

Ann Nolan from Ballycastle and Mary O’ Malley from Achill Island have managed the switchboards there for the past 37 years and 35 years, respectively. On Monday, Senator Paddy Burke from Castlebar, a former cathaoirleach of the Upper House, wished them both a long and happy retirement.

“They have done a magnificent job over those years. It’s great that when you ring Leinster House, somebody answers the phone, not like all the other institutions around the country,” he remarked.

Cathaoirleach Mark Daly agreed. “Their long and happy service is well known by all of us. When you ring the switchboard, they are always very professional and courteous and it’s great that Leinster House offers a service where human beings answer the phone.”

Regina Doherty, the Seanad leader, echoed the good wishes.

With any luck, Ann and Mary will not be replaced by “Press 1 to get annoyed, 2 to get frustrated and 3 to blow your top. Otherwise stay on the line and wait for over an hour to get the runaround.”

And speaking of the runaround, Malcolm Byrne is finishing his three-week Running Wexford fundraiser this Monday. The Fianna Fáil Senator and former TD has been running in stages from Castletown in the north of the county to Hook Head in the far south, stopping off for the occasional breather in Seanad Éireann.

The run is to raise awareness and funds for research into motor neurone disease and Monday coincides with national MND day. “There is a range of fundraisers happening all over Wexford to provide support for people battling this most horrible disease. All awareness raising helps,” said Malcolm.

Future fixations

A bit of concentration on the here and now wouldn’t go amiss from Fine Gael.

But the party is fixated on the “future”.

For those of you still inexplicably unaware of the major political event of the week, the 80th Fine Gael Ardfheis has been running online every night since Tuesday with audience viewing figures running into the tens of not very much.

The online FGabfest reaches a crescendo on Saturday evening with the Tánaiste’s televised teatime talk. Party leader Leo Varadkar has a half-hour slot before the six o’clock news on RTÉ 1 and his live keynote address will be spliced with inserts featuring sundry Ministers, an assortment of grassroots and as much shameless bigging up of the party’s candidate in the Dublin Bay South byelection as is decently possible.

FG’s last ardfheis was 2½ years ago and who can forget that memorable slogan from November 2018: “Taking Ireland Forward Together.” And here are those opening lines again from Leo’s tour de force: “An ardfheis is often an opportunity to look back on what has been achieved since the last time we met. But tonight, I want to talk to you about the future…”

They said that slogan couldn’t be bettered. But it was.

“A future to look forward to.”

A general election winning slogan if ever there was. If there ever was.

So here we are now with the country’s first virtual ardfheis heading into its final day with another great slogan to galvanise the troops.

Stripped down and simple. (The slogan, that is, not the troops.)

“For the Future.”

When Micheál goes.

Going forward.

MC and prizes

Fine Gael upped the excitement on night four of their virtual ardfheis by anchoring the online proceedings from a big room in the Aviva Stadium.

And if that wasn’t thrilling enough, a TV name from the past popped up to MC the opening half of the 8pm session called Reopening with confidence – the future for workers and business.

The main address was delivered by Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe with supporting noises from his glamorous assistant, Minister of State for Business Damien English.

But before they did their thing, former TV3 newsman Alan Cantwell, who went on to work briefly as an adviser to former minister of state, Mary Mitchell O’Connor, materialised onscreen and welcomed party members to the Aviva. He then introduced James Geoghegan’s campaign video, before interviewing the party’s candidate in Dublin Bay South in the nicest possible way. Cantwell is the constituency PRO, as it happens.

James then took over as chairman of the session, which featured the Paschal and Damien double act followed by a Q&A session involving delegates participating over the ether, God bless their Friday night dedication.

In his message to the faithful, party general secretary John Carroll acknowledged that fostering the crucial social element of the annual conference “will always be challenging in the online environment”. However, he said they chose a hosting platform which allowed members meet up in small groups online. “We strongly encourage chats and discussions outside of the normal programme.”

He suggested delegates might “consider inviting some fellow members to join them in their home” while observing Government restriction on numbers.

Groups hosting an ardfheis evening were invited to send in photos of their gatherings with a prize for the most original picture (old posters, literature “or other paraphernalia” might be used as props) and another prize for the branch submitting the most snaps.

We have been unable to confirm that the winning photograph featured tipsy delegates wearing Kate O’Connell masks rammed into a county councillor’s front room in the west of Ireland with posters of Eoghan Murphy, Verona Murphy and Dara Murphy adorning the perspiring walls and drinking paraphernalia all over the place.

They later had a fight and then somebody’s husband snook off with somebody else’s wife.

Just to give the event that more authentic, real ardfheis feel.

Closed show

Still with the Seanad, Paddy Burke made an interesting suggestion during Monday’s debate on the Public Service Pay Bill.

The legislation misses “a golden opportunity” to open up the public sector, which he described as a closed show.

“Look at John Bruton, for instance,” said Paddy.

Do we really have to?

“He was the European ambassador to America; quite a big job. But he wouldn’t qualify to be an ambassador of Ireland to even the smallest country in the world. I don’t know where anybody from outside the Civil Service was brought in to be an ambassador.”

This is a good example of the “closed shop” approach in the public service.

“There are quite a lot of people who have graced the Dáil and Seanad – Bertie Ahern, Enda Kenny and Brian Cowen. Is there any reason why they would not make great ambassadors for this country? This is an area that should be looked at.”

Big new jobs for Bertie, Enda and Brian. The public will love that.

Minister of State for Public Procurement, Ossian Smyth, was politely woolly with his reply.

“Senator Burke suggested that ambassadors could be drawn from outside the public service and that’s certainly an original suggestion, and certainly the names you provided were also interesting.”

He knows some countries have a “hybrid model” where either a civil service track is followed or somebody is selected by government.

“I’m not sure if that is under consideration but I’ll pass it on to the Department of Foreign Affairs and ask them.”

We can give Paddy Burke that Iveagh House answer on appointing ambassadors from outside their gilded set.

“Until hell freezes over.”