Miriam Lord: Leo makes Wexford wait while Wallace takes the Mick

Learjet woes, compo culture and Maria Bailey all made an appearance this week

Honest to God, isn’t it always the way?

The one time you really need the Government jet for a very important engagement, the flippin’ thing starts acting up. And then you have to start rearranging schedules and cancelling stuff.

Leo Varadkar must be very disappointed.

With a bit of logistical thinking and a late aircraft subsitution, he was able to make the annual conference of the European People’s Party in Croatia earlier this week after the Learjet was grounded.


But he wasn't so lucky on the return leg. At least, that's the word from the ground in Wexford, where hardworking Fine Gael byelection canvassers had been looking forward to a morale-boosting visit from the Taoiseach, their leader.

Local party bigwigs did their best to ease the footsoldiers’ disappointment on Friday with the impressive excuse that Leo would be unable to join them due to a technical issue with the Government jet.

So those FG people in Wexford, or the ones closer to party headquarters in Dublin, who are saying the Taoiseach is wary of being seen canvassing with controversial candidate Verona Murphy because her utterances about asylum seekers and road traffic laws are reflecting badly on the Fine Gael brand, are completely wrong.

As it happened, the Taoiseach made it back in time for a spot of canvassing, but he pitched up in Dublin Mid-West with former tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald. Cllr Emer Higgins is her party's candidate for her old seat in Dublin Mid West, and the three spent the afternoon canvassing in Lucan. "Only 7 days to go!" tweets Frances. One suspects Leo can't wait.

The party issued a statement on Leo’s byelection canvassing plans: fluid. He hopes to canvass with all the candidates, but there is “no fixed canvassing schedule as such for the Taoiseach, with opportunities being kept under review as his schedule allows”. Don’t put the kettle on just yet, Verona.

Doorstep reception

Meanwhile, we hear from Dublin Fingal, where the second of four byelections takes place on Friday, that former minister for health Senator James “Bottler” Reilly is getting a mixed reception on the doorsteps. It’s not all Bottler’s doing.

Party canvassers have reported what one described as “negative kickback” from voters over sitting Fine Gael TD Alan Farrell’s compensation claim for €15,000 damages following a minor collision in 2015.

He said it left him with neck and shoulder pain which affected his professional and personal life for up to 18 months. Photographs of the TD climbing a ladder with an election poster during that period were shown during the court hearing last year.

The TD, who sits on the Dáil's Public Accounts Committee, was awarded €2,500 for his injuries, but Judge Michael Coghlan said there was "little or no notation to back up a claim of significant whiplash" and he considered it "a very minor injury".

Judge Coghlan also questioned why Farrell suddenly dropped a claim for €882.24 for material damages to his car on the day of the court case – three years on from the incident – after photographs were produced by the other side.

The Taoiseach took no action after details of the case, reported in newspapers at the time, featured in an RTÉ Prime Time programme about personal injury claims. It was also raised in the Dáil by opposition TDs.

Compared to the treatment meted out by the Fine Gael leadership to his party colleague Maria Bailey (the Irish Sun routinely refers to both TDs as "compo chasers"), Alan Farrell would seem to have been let off very lightly by Leo. However, internal FG chatter about bad vibes from the doorsteps in Fingal is showing the electorate might not be so forgiving.

Hold the front page ad

Sympathy may be in short supply for Maria Bailey, but she must be feeling a bit shortchanged when she looks at her colleague Alan Farrell still bowling along nicely. Even if Farrell was very supportive in his public comments when she found herself in eye of the “Swing-gate” storm.

Bailey famously sued a Dublin hotel damages when she fell off a swing on a night out, but later withdrew the case amid controversy over details of her claim.

Last week, the Fine Gael TD for Dún Laoghaire was deselected by her party as a candidate for the next general election following the fallout from the episode. The Taoiseach recommended the move and the national executive endorsed it. But if Fine Gael hoped Maria was going to go quietly once they dumped her off the ticket, they may have another thing coming.

This week, she made an appearance in the Dáil chamber for Leaders’ Questions. Leo Varadkar may or may not have felt her eyes burning into the back of his head. The Taoiseach’s backbench troops are allergic to parade-ground duty. During his twice weekly set-piece in the chamber – the most-watched part of the political day – TDs are expected to muster in support.

Most don’t bother. But Maria did this week. She also sent a letter to all registered members in the constituency questioning aspects the process which led to her removal. It is worded very carefully and has a strong whiff of m’learned friends about it. She also spoke at this week’s parliamentary party meeting, telling colleagues that the party had to improve its crisis management system and must support members who become victims of “social media onslaughts”.

Saturday clinics

And here’s Maria again, this time beaming out from an expensive front page advertisement in the latest edition of the Dublin Gazette (South edition), which came out on Thursday.

The advert is right across the top half of the page, below the masthead – impossible to miss, exactly a week on from her deselection. In it, she gives details of her monthly Saturday clinics. He name is highlighted in large letters while Fine Gael features in much smaller type.

It has not gone unnoticed in the constituency. “It’s defiance, this!” declared one Dublin politician, who can’t recall ever seeing a similar advert from the beleaguered TD in the aforementioned publication.

A look back over recent editions would bear this out. The Dublin Gazette publishes four editions. Senator James Reilly, who is a candidate in the Fingal byelection, has an election ad along the bottom of page one in his local edition this week.

Maria is not running in the byelections. Her party won’t let her run in the general election. The timing of the advert may be coincidental, but it may also be a signal of intent.

Balcony shot of a topless Wallace

The other candidates in the Wexford byelection won’t be too pleased with all the attention focused on Verona Murphy’s opinions and Fine Gael’s frantic attempts to hothouse her in the art of circumspection and contrition.

Fianna Fáil's Malcolm Byrne, one of the frontrunners in the race for MEP Mick Wallace's old seat, was taken aback when he saw the ballot paper for Friday's vote. There is one "L" of a mistake on it – his name has been spelled incorrectly. He is listed as "Malcom".

The light shines on his white hair. And it shines on the other hair too. There is a lot of hair

Cllr Byrne, who put in a very good showing in the European elections, says he won’t be asking for a reprint because of the cost involved.

Of course, Mick Wallace is above all that now. The former TD is well-ensconced now in Brussels and working hard. But Mick has always valued the importance of enjoying some downtime – a glass of good Italian wine and a blast of La Liga football and he's happy out.

He stuck up a very mischievous photo on his Facebook page last Tuesday evening, presumably taken in his apartment in Brussels.

Gloom beyond

It’s a very atmospheric shot, taken from inside the dark room. The full length French windows are open, the sun is setting over the rooftops and Wallace is relaxing on the old wrought-iron balcony, drink in hand, a brilliant shaft of evening light falling on him and into the gloom beyond.

The light shines on his white hair. And it shines on the other hair too. There is a lot of hair.

For Mick is reclining topless. A caption is appended. “Heard there’s a debate tonight with some of the Wexford byelection candidates. Good luck with that.”

Rubbing it in, he adds a little emoji of two clinking beer glasses for good measure. There's a good measure of something amber in the glass he's holding on the balcony too. Everybody is wondering who took the photo. Our money is on Clare Daly, his fellow MEP and close friend. The photographer has a good eye.

Recipe for success of Sino-Irish links

There was a Chinese theme to the self-service canteen menu in Leinster House on Wednesday night when that celebrated addition to Sino-Irish cuisine, the Spice Bag, made an appearance by popular demand.

But the best food was served nearby in the Ceann Comhairle's Private Dining Room, where a team of chefs from the Chinese embassy joined the Oireachtas catering team to cook a special menu in honour of the Ireland-China Parliamentary Group.

The Ceann Comhairle, Sean Ó Fearghaíl, welcomed His Excellency Ambassador He Xiangdong, and his wife Mme Xia to Leinster House for the occasion, which also marked the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Ó Fearghaíl, who visited China last year, welcomed the recent agreement on market access for Irish beef exports to China while also mentioning the strong potential that is there to increase trade further across a range of areas – including food and drink, education, financial services and tourism. Wicklow TD for Wicklow Pat Casey, who is the chairman of the Parliamentary Friendship Group, presented Mme Xia with a bouquet of flowers. Chef Zhang and his team, working in the Leinster House kitchen, cooked fried pork with sweet and sour sauce, sautéed filet of beef with black pepper, bran dough with mushroom, bamboo shoot and fungus, and stir-fried sweet broad pea.

Coddle shots

The Oireachtas catering team, led by Gráinne Dempsey from Monaghan, served Kish Fish Howth smoked salmon, “coddle shots”, bacon and cabbage spring rolls and smoked haddock gratin. Gráinne’s award-winning dessert trolley, including mulled wine trifle and Dáil Éireann Christmas pudding, went down particularly well with the Chinese visitors.

We asked Ambassador He where his residence is located. “Raglan Road” he replied, before quietly singing “On Raglan Road of an autumn day I saw her first and knew . . .” He knows all the words.

Other guests included Ministers Michael Creed, Seán Kyne, Charlie Flanagan, Mary Mitchell O'Connor, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee Brendan Smith and Leas Ceann Comhairle Pat the Cope Gallagher. Also enjoying the fare was Julie Sinnamon, chief executive of Enterprise Ireland; Siobhan McManamy, director of markets at Tourism Ireland; Tim Hawe, director of Asia Pacific Unit at the Department of Foreign Affairs; Peter Finnegan, secretary general of the Houses of the Oireachtas; and Prof Liming Wang, director of the UCD Confucius Institute for Ireland.