Miriam Lord: Micheál has Mary Lou pegged as a street angel and House devil
Party leaders in bitter exchanges as spirit of acrimony endures
Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald. Photograph: Crispin Rodwell
The Taoiseach has Mary Lou McDonald pegged as a street angel and House devil. All sweetness and light when the spotlight is off and total drama queen the minute it flicks on.
According to him, she doesn’t kick up at private meetings with party leaders and officials when serious issues such as the handling of Covid testing are being discussed. “Far less heated than it tends to be in the public arena” remarked Micheál Martin after a recent set-to in the Dáil chamber.
There have been exasperated mutterings from his direction about this tendency in recent times.
On Wednesday, he endured another bellyful of bellyaching at their daily exchange of unpleasantries. It used to be known as “Leaders’ Questions”.
Micheál looked dangerously close to losing his rag when their latest outing unfolded in the touching spirit of acrimony which has become a mark of recent encounters. The Sinn Féin leader is really getting up his nose with her unflagging criticism of the Government’s pandemic performance.
The Taoiseach’s mood may not have been helped by the absence of four of his most senior Cabinet Ministers who are caught up in the Great Confinement and working from home. Leo Varadkar, Simon Coveney, Paschal Donohoe and Stephen Donnelly have been placed on low-fibre diets and are busily restricting their movements.
The barbs were already flying at his coalition when Labour’s Sick Leave and Parental Leave Bill was debated during the morning session. The party’s finance spokesman Ged Nash was quick to pounce on the news that ICTU pulled out of talks on increasing the minimum wage because the offer on the table was too low.
“Put your money where your applause is” he told the Government, calling for a reasonable increase for the country’s lowest paid workers, many of whom are being lauded for their essential contribution during the Covid crisis.
Ged wouldn’t be the only opposition TD to point out that the public sector – “TDs included, by the way” – is due a 2 per cent increase next month while these workers “are not deserving of a miserable increase that will only add an extra 20 cent an hour.”
So Ged, backed up by his Labour colleagues, said that the fairest thing to do in these worrying times for so many people in the private sector would be for public service workers to forego their increase until the country gets out the other side of the Covid tunnel.
Of course they didn’t. That would be like Aengus Ó Snodaigh coming in and suggesting Ireland rejoins the Commonwealth.
The Taoiseach would tell Mary Lou McDonald later that the Low Pay Commission is a body independent of Government while the cost of increasing the minimum wage is borne by employers, many of whom are struggling to stay afloat during the Covid restrictions.
Aontú’s Peadar Tóibín all but danced into the open net
The Sinn Féin leader couldn’t have been more unimpressed had she been informed that lingering looks of withering contempt are to be banned from the Dáil chamber from next week.
Micheál found her outrage “outrageous”. Mary Lou found it “extraordinary” that he found her comments “extraordinary”.
The Government, any government, is always going to take flak when public sector – and therefore politicians’ – pay increases are due. It’s like the traditional throwing of shapes before the Dáil rises for a break: lots of harrumphing about staying on to do more work in the sure knowledge they’ll be heading off happily at the end of the day.
Then the increase kicks in anyway.
It doesn’t help to hear about TDs getting salary hikes when tens of thousands of workers, laid off because the State closed their workplaces, are facing reduced State payments. But that’s one thing. Announcing the appointment of 10 extra special advisers for junior Ministers this week was just another example of this administration’s self-inflicted misfiring due to faulty timing.
Aontu’s Peadar Tóibín all but danced into the open net.
The Government is cutting families’ income while shelling out millions of euro on ministerial handlers, he cried. “It is reminiscent of the days of Charlie Haughey, when he was telling people to tighten their belts while, at the same time, he was purchasing Charvet shirts in Paris.”
It is not good for the Fianna Fáil-led coalition when a former leader’s notorious shirts can be dredged from the linen basket of infamy for ventilation once again. They brought it on themselves.
And all this when the current leader is growing more exasperated by the day at the lack of recognition from some sections of the Opposition for the efforts he says his Government is making – at huge cost to the exchequer which will have to be confronted at some point – to support as many people as possible through the Covid crisis.
Mary Lou McDonald doesn’t see any of it. She saw him falling short on three fronts: the employment wage subsidy scheme, the cut in the pandemic unemployment payment and “a low pay commission which won’t deal with low pay”.
Micheál accused her of trying to create an impression that “the Government is out to get people”. To stand accused of not supporting workers – in reply he detailed the measures in place – “is an extraordinary political charge for you to make”.
Mary Lou regarded him with showy disdain.
“Well” she began, winding up for a torrent of indignation. “The only thing that is extraordinary Taoiseach is your extraordinary lack of fairness and your even more extraordinary lack of self-awareness in this regard.”
He sat watching her, silently seething.
“And can you. . . move beyond your sort of delusional reverie and into the real world with the rest of us.”
Contempt dripping from every word.
Dial it down, Mary Lou. Dial it down.
The Taoiseach sat down and he shuffled some of his papers, hands trembling with annoyance
Micheál hit back. She wants to talk about reality? “You use every occasion and situation to tell untruths and not to tell the truth in relation to the reality out there . . . you’re wrong . , . you deliberately distort . . .”
It was hard to know if the Taoiseach was more angry or more puzzled.
“Can. You. Not. Acknowledge. That?” he asked, beating out each word. “Can you not acknowledge that a very substantial intervention is being made, unprecedented, by the State, by the taxpayer in supporting unemployment? Why do you always feel the need to distort . , . to smear people who are definitely trying to their best?”
Mary Lou glowered across the floor at him.
“Because you do it for political outrage. All the time.”
The Taoiseach was riled.
“You know” the Low Pay Commission is not an arm of Government. “You know that yet you come in here again this morning trying to pretend” that it is.
“It is an independent regulatory body set up by this Oireachtas – including you! – but when it suits you you wanna make political charge after political charge and not deal with reality.”
The Taoiseach sat down and he shuffled some of his papers, hands trembling with annoyance.
The Sinn Féin leader complained to the Ceann Comhairle.
“I do not appreciate being accused of laying untruths before the House. That is untrue.”
And she wanted that on the record.
Maybe things will have calmed down by the return match next week.