Miriam Lord: Mary Lou’s sphinx-like smile not giving much away

Taoiseach turns on the charm with Sinn Féin leader, but his ‘strategic communication’ backfires

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar congratulates new Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald on her new role at Leaders’ Questions. Video: Oireachtas TV


Was it smarm or was it charm?

Mary Lou’s sphinx-like smile wasn’t giving much away in that regard.

At least the new leader of Sinn Féin will have been impressed by the Taoiseach’s good manners during Leaders’ Questions, even if she described him recently as “smarmy”.

Two weeks have passed since Mary Lou McDonald became president of Sinn Féin, but events in Northern Ireland kept her otherwise engaged in Stormont while business in the Dáil continued without her.

But she was at the helm on Tuesday.

Almost all of Leaders’ Questions was taken up with discussing the possible sale of PTSB mortgages to vulture funds. Micheál Martin raised the issue, the Labour leader, Brendan Howlin, had his say and so too did the new woman on the block.

Before he addressed Mary Lou’s particular query, Leo made a point of marking her arrival to the Leadership club.

“First of all, I just wanted to take this opportunity – as it is Deputy McDonald’s first occasion here in her new role as president of Sinn Féin, to congratulate her on her election to that office,” said the Taoiseach, much to everyone’s surprise.

If a week is a long time in politics, then a fortnight is an eternity. Mary Lou’s succession feels like ancient history now. Fair play to Leo for remembering.

“I know what it feels like to be elected to the leadership of your party, a party that you’ve worked for for decades, and I want to congratulate you on that. I know it must be a very proud moment for you and your family and your supporters,” said Leo, drawing on his own very recent experience.

“To have the opportunity to be president of your party and, I think, only the third woman to lead a major political party in Ireland, well, you have all of our best wishes in that regard.”

The Sinn Féin leader smiled, then gave him a look which said, “thanks, now get on with your answer.”

She urged the Taoiseach to “lift the phone” and tell PTSB not to proceed with the sale. She also took a hefty swipe at Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour for not supporting a Sinn Féin proposal in 2015 to regulate vulture funds.

“The hypocrisy today is odious as they and the Taoiseach now pretend to champion the very people they helped feed to these vultures three years ago.”

But at the end of her contribution, Mary Lou didn’t forget her manners either, and she thanked him for his kind remarks.

Later on, during questions to the Taoiseach, a subject dear to the hearts of all Opposition leaders made a swift reappearance. Leo’s “Strategic Communications Unit” is an object of never-ending fascination to media observers and political opponents.

Blue in the face

He may be blue in the face insisting that the unit is marketing’s way of streamlining access to information on what the Government is doing across all departments and state bodies, but it won’t ever stop anyone thinking it’s just a propaganda machine for Fine Gael in advance of the next election.

Or, as Mary Lou McDonald put it: “People believe you’re being a bit ‘chancy’ with all of this” and the money is being spent “not in the interests of professionalism, but squarely in the interests of Leo Varadkar and Fine Gael”.

“Hear Hear!” shouted Brendan Howlin.

Micheál Martin declared the unit is now “embedded” in the Taoiseach’s department.

There is no love for the Strategic Communications Unit outside of Government. This pains Leo. As a national branding/marketing exercise, it has worked very successfully elsewhere, he argues. New Zealand, for one.

Like anyone cared.

Micheál Martin was more concerned by the fact that the Taoiseach’s department has more people working on communications and marketing than it has on social policy. He pointed out that strategic communications “trumps any other initiative in terms of staffing and expertise recruited” in the department. “Given the enormity of Brexit, I think it is striking that the prioritisation is communications above and beyond anything else.”

Meanwhile, Brendan Howlin was bowled over by the blanket advertising campaign which followed last Friday’s launch of the National Development Plan.

Full-colour adverts in regional newspapers and long advertorials in publications, brought to lucky readers by “the Government of Ireland”.

He added that a friend went to see Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri over the weekend, but “had to endure another billboard” – an advert for the new development plan – before he got to watch the movie.

Leo saw the movie too at the weekend. He saw it in Smithfield and couldn’t wait to tell the Dáil about it.

“I went to see Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri myself at the Lighthouse cinema on Sunday night,” he announced. “Not sure what to make of the film, Ceann Comhairle.”

“Very good, I have to say,” thought Seán Ó Fearghaíl.

Not so convinced

Hmmmm, the Taoiseach wasn’t so convinced. “It was good. It was good. But hard to warm to the heroine in it, although, you know . . . Not sure what to make of it.”

Questions to the Taoiseach can be very dull. It would be marvellous if a weekly review section was to be included.

Leaders could ask Leo if he has read a particular book or seen a certain television programme and they could have a big discussion.

But back to the Strategic Communications Unit. Does the Taoiseach “have any idea what goes on in there?” asked Micheál.

Whereupon the Taoiseach took a nice pot-shot at the political veterans tormenting him over his unit.

He said he was aware that the last time there was a National Development Plan – “and the deputies opposite me may be particularly interested to know this” – the Fianna Fáil-led government set aside a €1 million budget to communicate details of the plan to the public and to pay for advertising.

“And, interestingly enough, a body called the Strategic Communications Group was established to moderate it all,” he triumphantly announced.

“So certainly it was not my idea, deputy.”

“Bertie,” murmured Mary Lou, correctly.

Leo was on a roll now, and got slightly carried away. He was about to say he got the idea for his controversial unit from Fianna Fáil, but realised mid-stream that it mightn’t be the wisest thing to say, given Fianna Fáil’s recent inglorious government past.

“I, em, I got it from, eh, I got it from . . . I . . . I . . . I . . . I . . . I . . . I learned from the masters on political communications,” he said, his voice trailing off.

Then he added, defiantly: “And that’s a strength, not a weakness.”

And that’s a statement which may yet come back to haunt him.