Miriam Lord: Mary Lou not liking the sound of a united Government

Michael McGrath, standing in for absent Taoiseach, stays calm for Sinn Féin grilling

Breaking news during Leaders’ Questions from the Minister for Public Expenditure, announcing a stunning departure for the Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Green Party coalition.

“I want to assure you that the Government is at one,” Michael McGrath grandly declared.

No wonder Mary Lou McDonald opened with “that’s an extraordinary response”. Fair dues, seldom is wonderful and congrats to all concerned on their achievement.

Deputy McGrath wanted to be very clear about this exceptional development.


“Minister Donohoe, myself and the entire Government, collectively, are at one . . .” he stressed again.

All of them, singing from the same hymn sheet as part of Micheál Martin’s Merrion Street collective.

“And we are keeping our ideas. On file. In a filing cabinet.” That’s what we expected the chartered accountant from Cork to say next because it would have sounded just perfect coming from him, but he didn’t.

Not only did the Sinn Féin leader find this unexpected disclosure “extraordinary” but she also thought it “a very, very disappointing one”.

Not because Opposition leaders love it when cross-party governments disagree but hate it when they claim to exist in perfect harmony. And not because Mary Lou thinks assertions that the Government is “at one” are entirely bogus because in her view any administration not run by Sinn Féin is permanently at sixes and sevens.

To underline the gravity of the difficult financial situation, Mary Lou went right back to 1969 and rejigged one of the most famous misquotes in Irish political history

No, she was very, very disappointed to hear Michael say that the Cabinet is in full agreement over future spending because it could only mean he is siding with the Minister for Finance, who announced he has no plans to introduce any more cost-of-living supports until the budget in October.

Mary Lou reminded him what Paschal Donohoe said: “I can be really clear that we are not considering any further steps.”

Seven months away

This position will have to be revisited, she said, because October is seven months away “and people are trying to stay afloat now. They can’t wait that long”.

Look at the rate of inflation, predicted to peak at 8.5 per cent in the summer – the highest since 1984 – while the war in Ukraine is further increasing inflationary pressure and adding to soaring prices.

To underline the gravity of the difficult financial situation facing many workers, families and small businesses, Mary Lou went right back to 1969 and rejigged one of the most famous misquotes in Irish political history.

“The Government cannot stand idly by while people are pushed into poverty,” she cried, borrowing from former Fianna Fáil taoiseach Jack Lynch’s speech in the aftermath of the Battle of the Bogside in Derry, when he promised the Irish government would “no longer stand by and see innocent people injured, and perhaps worse”.

Somewhere along the way the word “idly” was inserted into the line and it stuck.

The job of Government members is “to respond with speed and urgency to the extraordinary difficulties households now face,” said the Sinn Féin president, repeating the call she made to the Tánaiste on Tuesday for an immediate removal of VAT and excise duty on home heating oil.

Not that easy, replied the Minister, standing in for the Taoiseach who was still cooling his heels in Washington, waiting for the Covid all-clear so he could get out of Dodge and make it to Brussels in time to join his fellow EU leaders for the crucial wartime European Council meeting.

Micheál Martin finally got clearance to take off on Wednesday afternoon, thus ending his US confinement and raising the spirits of Opposition deputies struggling to get a rise out of his infuriatingly reasonable and unruffled Dáil understudy.

‘Constantly monitoring’

McGrath, while at pains to underline how united the Government is at this worrying time, stopped short of saying Paschal Donohoe’s intention not to bring in any more financial measures until October would be rigidly observed. It all depends. They are “constantly monitoring” the situation.

But with Europe and Ireland now at crisis cliche level, it was incumbent upon him to note “these are unprecedented times” with people coping with inflation levels “without parallel in recent modern history” while “we are witnessing a perfect storm”.

However, he informed Mary Lou, who could barely muster a heckle, never mind a disdainful bout of heavy sighs and eye-rolling, that his all-together Government has taken significant steps to alleviate the burden people are facing.

He listed off the billions already spent and detailed various assistance packages and mentioned that “the stability programme update will be published” in the next few weeks, resetting our economic and fiscal forecasts to take account of the prevailing conditions we are experiencing. Then there is the volatile international situation over which the Government has little control.

He also hinted that the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance are hoping to strike a bit of a deal with the European Commission on the VAT on home heating oil, while Micheál might come away with an extra few bob after the European Council.

“That is why the Government is not standing idly by,” said McGrath. “I think, through our actions to date, we have demonstrated that the Government is agile and the Government is responsive”, which was more than could be said of Opposition speakers wilting under a soporific onslaught from the openly vanilla deputy for Cork South Central.

Travel controls

A short time later, McDonald was up again to ask about the British government’s “disgraceful” plan to impose travel controls on non-Irish EU citizens “if they want to travel North to South or vice-versa”.

She framed her question without once mentioning the Border, Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland. Among other things, such a requirement would be devastating for the tourism sector.

“All of us know when visitors come from, for example, the United States of America, they travel right across the island. And we could be faced, Ceann Comhairle, with the bizarre situation that should president Biden pay a visit to our island, he and his party might be required to register for permission to travel across the island.”

Still, it’ll be such a treat for Joe to meet the Irish Taoiseach in the flesh at long last. Or Mihologram Martin, as the president knows him from their many virtual discussions.

And such a treat for Micheál too, when he finally gets to shake hands with president Biden in lovely Turners Cross.

“Top o’the marnin’ to ya, Mihologram! Is this Mayo? Are we in Mayo now?”

It’s the least he deserves after a rotten run of luck.