Miriam Lord: Minister for Agriculture tries to get himself out of the manure

Barry Cowen’s big apology rounds off Taoiseach Micheál Martin’s big day

Minister for Agriculture Barry Cowen has told the Dáil he is "profoundly sorry" for a drink-driving offence in 2016. Video: Oireachtas TV

 

In an explosive debut, the new Dáil burst from the Leinster House blocks on Tuesday.

The coalition’s first day in full session after Government formation brought with it the first abject apology from a Government Minister. That’s quite the start.

And it came after a litany of embarrassing episodes for new Taoiseach Micheál Martin, busily concentrating on getting his administration up and running while his party colleagues busily concentrate on covering themselves in ignominy.

Although his new Minister for Agriculture can’t be accused of not getting stuck in immediately. Barry Cowen is barely a wet week in his job and already he’s up to his oxters in manure. BabyBiff, brother of a former taoiseach Brian Cowen, was forced to make his inaugural statement to the Dáil in his new role all about himself.

It was a deep, deep apology for a drink-driving offence committed four years ago (and saying nothing to his party leader about it) and getting a fine and a three-month ban. As it was at the lowest end of the scale, there was no requirement to go to court at the time.

Full apology

So Cowen came into the chamber at 9pm and devoted his six-minute speaking slot to a full apology for his “grave error” and “lapse of judgment” and “stupid, stupid mistake”. There were no questions taken on his “misdemeanour”.

While taking full responsibility for his one and only lapse into “the shame of drink-driving” and apologising all round him, he made no attempt to make excuses his action or minimise the gravity of the offence. But his carefully worded statement also referred to how reports on the original incident have now “extended to reporting various speeding and parking fines I have occurred over the years”.

Many TDs would have collected similar penalties he intimated and he was clearly unhappy with these issues being “conflated” with the altogether different matter of drink-driving.

“I have conducted a full examination of all records that I could obtain,” he informed the Dáil. After dredging though his motoring past he disclosed “a failure to display a tax disc while parked in Tullamore 14 years ago”.

Cowen wants to get on with his job. “Now, formally, on the record of this House I sincerely want to apologise to my peers and my colleagues.”

In the meantime, he has been very busy. Almost as busy as his boss who earlier told the House that he hasn’t “wasted an hour” since becoming Taoiseach.

Hard to credit, but Tuesday’s sitting was the first with all the bells and whistles since the general election was called back in February

Cowen detailed all he has done since getting the new job in agriculture, before the premature onset of the manure. He has had made himself aware of the threat of Brexit, acquainted himself with the parlous state of the timber industry and already had the chats with commissioner Phil Hogan and his counterpart in Northern Ireland, Edwin Poots.

You’d be worried letting Barry near a car after those conversations which would drive anyone to drink.

Blended learning

The big apology rounded off an interesting day.

A day when an attempt at a groundbreaking form of blended learning has entered its second week in Kildare Street. Early results are chaotic but largely inconclusive.

It involves Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael running a government together for the first time, with a large handful of Greens thrown in for leavening purposes. Whatever way the experiment turns out, it’s shaping up to be very entertaining. Sorry, educational.

How will they get on? Hard to credit, but Tuesday’s sitting was the first with all the bells and whistles since the general election was called back in February.

It was a huge occasion for Martin, who turned up in the chamber almost 10 minutes early for his first round of Leaders’ Questions as Taoiseach. The Fianna Fáil leader had already waited 31 years so an extra few minutes to savour the moment wasn’t going to make much difference.

Oh, but Micheál was anxious to get his posterior into that coveted top seat, making a swift beeline towards it as soon as he got through the doors. He swerved to take the shortest route, only to be deftly diverted by ushers onto the time-honoured walkway all around the top level of the circular chamber, and from thence down the stairs which end where he sits.

New Taoiseach Micheál Martin. One of the advantages of Government is you get to control the agenda a lot of the time. A week and a half in office and Martin’s administration has yet to demonstrate it can do so. Photograph: Oireachtas TV
New Taoiseach Micheál Martin. Photograph: Oireachtas TV

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, in her elevated capacity as leader of the biggest Opposition party, took up position across the floor in the place recently vacated by the new Taoiseach. She also arrived in good time for the Dáil’s daily set piece. A big day for her party too – a nice change.

Social distancing

Cardboard political place-settings were placed at intervals around the benches, setting out precisely where the TDs had to sit to comply with the extremely strict social distancing rules. There were very real fears that Mary Lou and Pearse Doherty might – through no fault of their own – thoroughly orchestrate a regulation-busting Sinn Féin crowd scene in their section, but they didn’t because this was Dublin and not west Belfast.

The names on the place-settings changed since the curtailed sessions of previous weeks, when Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael TDs were given separate numbered spots. Now that the 33rd Dáil is under way, those two parties names have been replaced with the generic “Government” tag.

Not a day assembled as a coalition in the old chamber and already the big two have lost their identities.

On the other side of the floor, it was a case of high hopes and earplugs with Mary Lou finally earning first dibs on questioning a Taoiseach during Leaders’ questions. This is the most high-profile event of the Dáil day (except when a politician has to come in and make a grovelling apology for a lapse in standards).

Then we had Cowen hauling himself in from the doghouse to beg forgiveness.

Under normal circumstances, with BabyBiff’s tribulations added to the litany of Government howlers marking the start of Martin’s government, a scorching debut might have been expected from the steely Sinn Féin leader. But it was a subdued start from Mary Lou, who stuck to the issue of extended maternity leave and pay for new mothers who are facing particular difficulties are a result of the Covid-19 crisis.

She expressed her concerns during two polite exchanges with the Taoiseach, who was equally concerned and polite.

Following events in Belfast, it was probably wiser not to go drawing attention to the provisional route about licences and the like

Micheál adopted a markedly different tone throughout his first Leaders’ Question, as if emphasising he was listening to the opposition during his time supporting the Fine Gael government and is going to be far more responsive than Leo Varadkar.

Bout of hostilities

At the end of the first bout of hostilities between the Fine Gael and Sinn Féin leader, Mary Lou’s response reflected her soft approach to this particular episode.

“In that case, we are of one mind,” she told Micheál.

That won’t happen too often. But then, following the embarrassing events for Sinn Féin in Belfast, it was probably wiser not to go drawing attention to the provisional route about licences and the like.

Labour’s Alan Kelly took up the slack. He had no qualms reintroducing both the Government and Sinn Féin to recent embarrassments.

When the sting of the last few weeks wear off for the main opposition, the Sinn Féin leader and the Labour leader will make a formidable team. They’ll be trying to outdo each other in knocking spots off Micheál.

The Taoiseach will have to on stay on his toes.

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