Miriam Lord: Mary Lou fires opening salvo in latest round of ‘Utility Wars’
‘Taoiseach, I want to raise with you the latest debacle over bin charges...’ Gulp.
Mary Lou McDonald: Did someone mention the bins? Photograph: Alan Betson
It was 12 minutes past midday.
Mary Lou McDonald rose to her feet.
“Taoiseach, I want to raise with you the latest debacle over bin charges . . .”
All together now: From the mountains to the sea, Irish rubbish will be free!
Did somebody mention the bins? In a house in Mulhuddart, former TD Joe Higgins was probably already heading for the shed to do his bit for the recycling effort. Time to get the posters out again. Time to win another bin battle.
There is an excellent template to follow now, thanks to the water charges protest movement. There weren’t many Opposition TDs in the chamber when Sinn Féin’s deputy leader fired the opening salvo in this latest round of the Utility Wars. Too busy girding their loins.
It remains to be seen whether the announcement that flat rate fees for bin collections are gone – a situation the Taoiseach readily accepted “is a case where some people will face a rise in bills” – will lead to the sort of outcry which characterised the water charges fiasco.
Twelve months ago, when the waste-collection companies wanted to bring in a new charging regime, there was an angry response from opposition TDs and members of the public, while government deputies got an earful at constituency clinics.
Still punch drunk and weary from the water campaign, Enda Kenny’s administration kicked the issue to touch.
Now it’s back. We’d all forgotten about it, until Denis Naughten, the Minister in charge, made his announcement on Tuesday night and Mary Lou wasted no time in sending the balloon up.
The attention of many of those who might otherwise have been rattling bin lids outside the gates of Leinster House was elsewhere on Wednesday – up at court awaiting the result of the Jobstown Trial. They’ll be back.
Leo Varadkar remained very matter-of-fact in his replies to McDonald, who accused him of paving the way for private operators to make massive profits on the back of hard-pressed citizens. “We truly have arrived at Destination Privatisation,” she said, delivering her obligatory sound-bite.
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The Taoiseach didn’t think it a big deal. The new system makes sense for very sound environmental reasons. Furthermore, everyone knew for a year that change was on the way.
Leo’s soothing words will come as a great comfort to people struggling to manage their bills. “The framework will give waste-collectors flexibility to offer or introduce a range of incentivised pricing options that encourage householders to reduce or separate their waste, while choosing the service price offering that best suits their circumstances and allows them to manage their costs.”
And, as everyone knows, those waste-collecting folk are all heart.
It’s only a matter of time before tales of eye-popping bills are swapped in the Dáil chamber and tearful mothers start lifting their phones to Joe Duffy.
Mary Lou couldn’t leave the subject without delivering a swipe at Fianna Fáil.
“And I notice this morning, not a peep from the Soldiers of Destiny on this topic.”
Micheál Martin and his troops bridled.
“You mustn’t have been listening to Today with Sean O’Rourke,” shouted Micheál. Right enough, Timmy Dooley was on the mid-morning radio show, tip-toeing gingerly up the hill with Fianna Fáil’s reservations about the new measures.
“You have to get up earlier in the morning, Mary Lou” chortled a Fine Gael backbencher, well up to speed with the workers’ gospel according to Leo.
The Taoiseach’s low key response didn’t impress the woman widely tipped to succeed Gerry Adams in the near future. “You seem to live in another place where inability to pay things doesn’t even come on to your radar.”
She found his indifference “quite disgraceful”.
Leo, in very level tones, pointed out that half the households in the State already paid their bin charges through the systems now being introduced across the board. “So I don’t think that people should be panicked and fearful. I’m sure deputy, if people are panicked and fearful, you won’t try to exploit that panic and fear,” he said sweetly, looking the very picture of reasonableness.
In fact he was confident Deputy McDonald and her party would do “the responsible thing” and give people proper information about recycling and reducing charges.
That’s grand. “I’ll put them on to you so,” declared Mary Lou. “I’ll send them up to Blanchardstown, sure it’s only a stone’s throw from Cabra.”
Her decision to send constituents up to Varadkar’s office prompted an immediate response from two Fianna Fáil heavyweights who like to flirt with the gravitas which comes with seniority but can’t help sliding back to old ways.
“Oh, Sinn Féin is good at throwing stones all right,” sneered Billy Kelleher.
“There was a time when you’d be worried about something else being thrown by Sinn Féin,” snorted Timmy Dooley.
Bimmy and Tilly, a great double act.
Potential leaders in waiting, say some.
Later in the afternoon, Leo and Mary Lou engaged again. Deputy McDonald mentioned one of the bigger stories from last week – the lack of women among Leo’s line-up of junior ministers.
“There was considerable commentary on your choice of Ministers for State, particularly with regard to gross gender imbalance, as I think it would be fair to say,” she sniffed, before wondering about something she read in a newspaper at the weekend about him intending to redress this imbalance by appointing attractive advisors.
“It seemed to be kind of a formula for the Lovely Girls entering the fray,” she recalled. Very odd.
Leo couldn’t help. All he knew was that the report came from an anonymous source, someone he could have a good guess at identifying, and that anonymous sources never tend to be favourable. And it wasn’t true. However, he came armed with figures on the man/woman breakdown, telling McDonald that of 12 female TDs who support his Government, nine of them have jobs. He pointed out that, unlike other prime ministers, he cannot appoint people who are not elected to parliament.
Then the Taoiseach, with the slightest flicker of a smile, redirected the spotlight.
“I did, in anticipation that this question might come up, have a look at the gender composition of the Sinn Féin front bench, which is four out of 18, which is actually slightly worse than what we have around the Cabinet table,” he informed a stony-faced Mary Lou.
“Just in case you didn’t notice.”