Miriam Lord: Leo quells annual tizzy over Christmas bonus

Kite-flying isn’t what it used to be. This one flew for barely a day

The money for the Christmas bonus will be found – but only after much effort on the Government’s part, it has to be said. And it was. Photograph: iStock

The money for the Christmas bonus will be found – but only after much effort on the Government’s part, it has to be said. And it was. Photograph: iStock

 

The radio ads for the pantos have started.

Gaudy bauble shops are popping up in department stores around the country.

And on Tuesday, in September, the annual tizzy over the Christmas social welfare bonus made its seasonal debut in Leinster House.

2018 has definitely turned the final corner.

The panic was sparked when rumours surfaced in the media, as they always do when the budget is on the horizon. It seems the Minister – looking over at her accounts and taking everything into consideration – took a sharp inhalation of breath and wondered if she could afford to pay it.

Worried potential recipients immediately contacted their public representatives to find out where they stand now and to voice their concerns about losing this welcome financial boost.

Questions were asked on the floor of the Dáil.

This allowed the Taoiseach to gallop in on his white charger and say all is well.

“I thank the Deputies for raising this important issue and giving me an opportunity to allay people’s concerns. The Christmas bonus is really important, particularly for people who are on low and fixed incomes. It gives pensioners an opportunity to buy presents for their grandchildren. . .” soothed Leo, spooling in the string on his Government’s little pre-budget kite.

“I can assure the Deputies that the Christmas bonus will be paid this year.”

Regina Doherty, the Minister, was equally clear earlier in the day when assuring everyone that she had no intention of discontinuing the practice. Of course, the money will be found – but only after much effort on the Government’s part, it has to be said. And it was.

Kite-flying isn’t what it used to be. This one flew for barely a day.

Rural Ireland’s decline

Michael Lowry, meanwhile, is very worried about “the rapid decline of rural Ireland” and he used his Leaders’ Questions slot on behalf of the Rural Independents Group to read out a short speech on the subject.

Improvements in the economy were not reaching beyond the urban populations, he declared, warning of “an unsettling mood of powerlessness among rural dwellers” which was affecting their wellbeing and desire to contribute to a society that offers little in return.

“A balance must be restored or rural Ireland will die quickly and quietly.”

Quietly? The TD for Tipperary should spend more time in the Dáil chamber.

Lowry had a list: farming under pressure; rural roads neglected; lack of jobs; depopulation; young people migrating to towns; post offices closing.

“We have a wonderful nation of talented and creative people, and regardless of their addresses they are entitled to feel valued and empowered . . . Our policies need to be national and they need to be for the benefit of everyone,” he told the Taoiseach.

Leo Varadkar was delighted with Michael’s contribution because it was one of those questions which is really a statement allowing him to murmur sweet nothings across the floor about how he loves the tractor dudes and stuff.

“I thank Deputy Lowry for raising this important issue and I also want to assure him that this Government is committed to rural Ireland and to making sure that it is vibrant and prosperous and that it is a place where people want to live, want to stay, want to move their families into and can establish a business and run it successfully. Our plan for the nation, Project Ireland 2040, has rural Ireland at its heart . . .”

And so on.

Non-existent nature of broadband

One aspect of life outside the main urban areas is the hit and miss or non-existent nature of broadband. “Poor access to a proper broadband service and information technology is a huge disadvantage,” observed Lowry, who is not without experience in the area of mobile telecommunications. “It is impossible for country towns to attract industry as they have little prospect of competing against the city locations that already have it in place.”

Maybe Michael knows a man who could help improve the situation?

Although when the business consortium which looks set to scoop the most lucrative communications contract in the history of the State gets to work, Lowry’s worries should be at an end.

The Taoiseach told him that only half the country had broadband when the Government took office and now about three-quarters have coverage “and we’re going to get the whole way so that we become one of the first countries in the world where every premises, no matter how remote, has access to broadband”.

Leo’s ambitions

Fianna Fáil’s Dara Calleary,standing in for Micheál Martin, wanted to hear more about Leo’s ambitions for broadband.

As over half a million homes, businesses and farms wait for the rollout of the new national broadband plan, “the process is more like ‘Lannigan’s Ball’ than anything else with so many people stepping in and stepping out of it”.

Dara hoped the procurement rules were still being complied with in spite of all of the changes to the tendering parties. He was also anxious to hear the Taoiseach confirm when the assessment process for the current bidder will be finalised. Is the rollout still on schedule?”

His concern was understandable as the tender process has been a messy, stop-start affair, with high-profile international contenders deciding to walk away, leaving just one bidder in the race for the big prize. The Denis O’Brien company Actavo, formerly Siteserv, which includes former Independent News and Media chairman Leslie Buckley as a board member, was named as a “key partner” of the final consortium led by US investor Granahan McCourt.

Dara Calleary finds it all fascinating. Who wouldn’t?

Leo said he assumed matters were proceeding in accordance with the normal procurement process but he would ask the Minister for Communications, Denis Naughten, to fill him in on the details.

Meanwhile, the national picture is looking good. “I am confident it is on track and we will be able to sign a contract and we will have shovels in the ground and work under way in 2019.”

It’ll be “as big a project in many ways as rural electrification”.

Just think of the photo ops.

“Will you have your high-vis jacket ready?” inquired Calleary.

“I look forward to having the contracts signed,” smiled the Taoiseach.

“Will that be on camera?”

“I look forward to turning the sod, absolutely.”

You can bet your house on that – if you have one.

Michael Lowry will be pleased too, for his constituents.

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