Miriam Lord: Leinster House plinth posturing has reached ridiculous proportions
Negotiators declare what it might take to consider lending their brilliance to an administration
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar: far from those good old days and the vacant seats on State boards which he never got around to filling before calling the election. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA
Congratulations to Fine Gael on achieving a perfect balance on the gender front.
Their much awaited top-pick of 13 favoured ones to contest the Seanad elections emerged from headquarters on Thursday night, along with the groundbreaking news that the party had selected the same number of women candidates as candidates called John. Three of each. A stunning achievement.
The members of the parliamentary party can claim no responsibility for bringing about this ceiling-shattering list. Instead, it was an inside job for what are known as the “inside” nominations.
Leader Leo Varadkar, general secretary Tom Curran and the members of the National Executive can take full credit for cranking up the effort to future-proof and gender-proof the old party.
When we say they can claim no responsibility, that’s not strictly true. TDs and Senators were given blank nomination forms at this week’s parliamentary party meeting. They had to sign them and hand them back. The National Executive then decided which candidates to select, filling in names on the pre-signed documents.
Each candidate needs the backing of four Oireachtas members. On their current strength, this allows Fine Gael 13 runners. But the TDs and Senators have no say when it comes to whose name they will endorse. They could be signing the nomination papers for an axe-murderer, for all they know about it.
The list is compiled very carefully, with an eye to winning future Dáil seats. Ten men and three women made the final cut. That sends out an interesting message.
Among those overlooked was Dublin Bay South’s Kate O’Connell, a TD with a national profile and one of the stand-out performers from the last Dáil. She lost out to colleague Eoghan Murphy while taking 12 per cent of the vote. O’Connell, who may not always have toed the party line, is said to be “stunned” by her omission.
The process of seeking an “outside” nomination from a vocational body is already closed. The “inside” Oireachtas nominations close on Monday but the Fine Gael list is done. It is telling that Regina Doherty, Mary Mitchell O’Connor and Marcella Corcoran-Kennedy, all of whom held ministerial office before they lost their seats, have chosen to walk away completely from national politics.
Fine Gael’s lucky 13 will challenge for seats on the “inside” sub-panels, where all the nominees are chosen by TDs and outgoing Senators. The field is less crowded than the “outside” vocational section. The three women who made the grade are Cllr Emer Currie, Leo Varadkar’s running mate in Dublin West; Cllr Aisling Dolan who contested Roscommon-Galway; and Bettystown-based Cllr Sharon Tolan from the southernmost end of the Louth constituency. The 10 men are Cllr John Cummins (Waterford), Cllr John Paul O’Shea (Cork North West) and Cllr John MacGahon (Louth), all unsuccessful general election candidates; outgoing TDs Tom Neville (Limerick), Michael D’arcy (Wexford) and Noel Rock (Dublin North West); outgoing Senators Joe O’Reilly (Cavan-Monaghan) and Jerry Buttimer (Cork South Central); Cllr Micheál Carrigy (Longford-Westmeath) and Cllr Garret Ahearn (Tipperary), also unsuccessful in the general election.
Cherishing the ladies
This time last year, the Cabinet met in special session to mark International Women’s Day. The Taoiseach and his Ministers (along with a huge song and dance) met in Pearse Street’s Academy Building, where the Irish Women’s Workers Union was founded in 1911 at a meeting addressed by Constance Markievicz. Oh, the symbolism. They were delighted with themselves. Ministers reviewed, among other things, the 2017 National Strategy for Women and Girls. Its aim is to encourage women into leadership roles in the workplace, sport, politics and the arts.
One of the self-congratulatory press releases afterwards trumpeted the Cabinet’s decision to implement “a range of new measures to promote increased participation by women in the upcoming local elections and greater gender equality on local councils”. Whatever about the locals, enthusiasm waned by the time the general election came around. In order to qualify for State funding, at least 30 per cent of a party’s candidates must be women. Fine Gael just squeaked in with 30.5 per cent.
Mind you, some of the others weren’t that hot either – Fianna Fáil managed 31 per cent, Labour 32 per cent and Sinn Féin 33 per cent. For all the snazzy publicity and talk of cherishing the ladies, it doesn’t look like Leo and the top brass learned very much from their big day out in Pearse Street. Still, there is always room for improvement. There’s always the party’s list for the Seanad. Going forward (or otherwise). Oh.
There is fear and foreboding in media circles as aspirant editorial controllers in Sinn Féin gird their loins and prepare to take control of the airwaves. Senior management types in RTÉ are weeping quietly in corners.
It’s all the Government’s fault. Once upon a time, outgoing administrations used to stuff State boards with failed candidates and drinking buddies and appoint cronies to judicial benches and every possible quango.
Back in the mists of time (1977), then taoiseach Liam Cosgrave and tánaiste Brendan Corish were especially enthusiastic after their crushing defeat to Jack Lynch.
The appointment of defeated TD Brendan Toal as a land commissioner caused particular consternation since Brendan had no obvious qualifications for the post. Liam’s successor, Garret FitzGerald, was mortified and declared himself agin this class of behaviour.
But Cosgrave remained unrepentant, viewing such patronage, long-practised by Fianna Fáil, as fair game. Journalist turned broadcaster Ted Nealon was among those who defended Cosgrave, regarding the appointments as proof of his loyalty to those who had served the party well and had paid a price.
Lofty Leo and his pals must be looking back with misty eyes on those good old days as they survey all the vacant seats on State boards which they never got around to filling before calling the election.
Chief among them are berths on the RTÉ board where the terms of office of most of the members have expired, according to the national broadcaster’s website. Ditto for the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, where a similar situation exists. There are so many expired terms of office it’s a wonder either of them can rustle up a quorum for a board meeting these days.
Of course in these politically correct days, there is a system of public application for these positions, but the buck stops at the Cabinet table, especially with the Minister for Communications (Richard Bruton) in the case of RTÉ and the BAI.
Board applicants are now interviewed by the Oireachtas committee on communications, and in the new political dispensation, the chair of the next one might not be a fan of the State broadcaster.
Sinn Féin has an obsession with media bias and a few utterances from that quarter since the party’s electoral breakthrough have set nerves jangling among the put-upon public service broadcasters.
At the party’s post-election moral victory rally in Newry on Wednesday night, the contribution from one audience member caused the earth to move in Merrion Square (BAI) and Montrose, but not in a good way. A party supporter from Belfast said that when Sinn Féin get into government they should take the Department of Communications and have “a special word” with RTÉ over the “disgraceful way they deal with us in Northern Ireland”. This was greeted with applause from the floor.
Mary Lou McDonald’s more measured response – “All of them have a job to do and we want them to do their job well” – will have had Montrose mandarins reaching for the Imodium. And this, on top of the fear induced by Ard Comhairle member and former councillor Enda Fanning, who tweeted immediately after the election about the need for a monitoring body to prevent media bias against Sinn Féin.
Meanwhile, the Taoiseach’s department established a Commission on the Future of Public Service Broadcasting in December. DCU president Prof Brian MacCraith was appointed as its chairman in January. But the commissioners have yet to be appointed. Just imagine – there are endless ways in which a new minister could help put manners on RTÉ and other non-conforming broadcasters. And there would be nothing shadowy about it either.
And a hard place
The affable Noel Rock, who lost his seat in Dublin North West to Fianna Fáil’s Paul McAuliffe, embarked on the Seanad election trail on Friday. It was his first taste of this strange ritual, whereby candidates traverse the country looking for support from county councillors.
Councillors make up the vast majority of the Seanad electorate. We rang him early in the evening to find him lost in a rural midlands area, having been misdirected to the home of a Fine Gael councillor only to be greeted by his very elderly father who lives alone.
Rock is one of legions of candidates from all parties currently besieging local representatives and making them feel important. “I came around the corner in one place and it was like the queue for Krispy Kreme, or the hand sanitiser in Boots. There was a of line cars belonging to Fine Gael candidates in front of me, all waiting for their turn to go in and the occupant ask for a vote.”
So where are you now, Noel? “I haven’t a clue” said the politician reared in the Ballymun flats. “I haven’t seen a house in half an hour.”
Brilliance being lent
Some personal news. Having spent the last two weeks taking soundings and formulating a position, I have decided to form myself into a technical group for the purpose of seeking attention.
It’s been a very busy time. The phone hasn’t stopped ringing. I have invested in comfortable shoes and they are proving a very wise investment. Now I can walk in comfort to my scheduled twice-daily doorstep briefings inside the gates of Leinster House and then hurry outside with aplomb for those impromptu camera opportunities.
The amount of plinth posturing over the last couple of weeks has reached ridiculous proportions. Negotiating teams are in and out every day, declaring the state of play as they see it and what it might take for them to consider lending their brilliance to an incoming administration. Meetings are taking place in a variety of locations in and around Leinster House.
The Greens, though, are really going for it. Their meetings with Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil have gone on for hours, and hours. The party is really serious about its climate change agenda and isn’t interested in window dressing options from potential senior government partners.
Whereas as other players hold talks with relatively small negotiating teams, the Greens arrive in force with all sorts of policy advisers in tow. This means that the opposite side has to bulk up too. They need a big room. They are holding their meetings with Fianna Fáil in Agriculture House. More specifically, in the headquarters of the National Emergency Centre. You couldn’t make it up.