Miriam Lord: Ministers without seats populate Kildare Street twilight zone

Zappone reports for duty in Leinster House as Ross remains in south Dublin cocoon

Minister for Children Katherine Zappone. “As she has not reached the pandemic swaddling stage, the serving Minister for Children (without a seat) was able to report for duty.” Photograph: Leon Farrell/Photocall/PA

Minister for Children Katherine Zappone. “As she has not reached the pandemic swaddling stage, the serving Minister for Children (without a seat) was able to report for duty.” Photograph: Leon Farrell/Photocall/PA

 

Another blockbuster day in Leinster Houzzzz. . .

Europe.

Discuss.

Views and thoughts very much welcomed by the Taoiseach. As opposed to thoughts and prayers, as they weren’t discussing the formation of the next government at this particular Dáil sitting.

In his regular “What I did in Europe” slot, Leo Varadkar reported on how he got on with his fellow leaders during their recent video summit. At the end of his statement, he invited Dáil colleagues to consider Europe’s role in our post-pandemic recovery process.

“I welcome the views and thoughts of members today.”

But not for too long. The Taoiseach apologised in advance for having to do a flit from the chamber as he had to zoom away to his office to participate in a video conference with heads of government from the western Balkans. And why not?

“This is our neighbourhood,” said Leo, overflowing with geographic generosity. He expressed full support for the European Union’s Covid-19 aid package for the region before leaving to commune with his Balkan buddies.

The pace in Leinster House has shifted up to breakneck speed this week. The House is sitting not just for one, but for two days and the schedule is twice as unremarkable.

Three items were on up for debate on Wednesday: Europe, tourism and children.

At least the Taoiseach was able to preside over that portion of the timetable relating to his duties, being lucky on two counts. One: he is still in possession of a Dáil seat. Two: he is under 70 years of age.

But when it came to discussing Covid-tourism, which, let’s face it, isn’t ever likely to make it on to the glossy pages of a Fáilte Ireland brochure, the senior Cabinet Minister in charge was unable to attend. This was not because Shane Ross, aka Winston Churchtown, lost his seat in the recent election. In the continuing absence of a proper government, he retains his job as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport and is constitutionally allowed to address the Dáil on matters pertaining to his portfolio.

It may seem a bit ridiculous to have non-TDs still in command on the ministerial benches, but that’s the law.

However, as a youthful 70 he is enjoying his confinement.

This came as a massive disappointment to those of use hoping to see Winston burst from his south Dublin cocoon like a happy carpet moth after weeks of nibbling on an antique rug. One last, rare, appearance on the floor of the House.

But it wasn’t to be. Instead, Kerry’s Brendan Griffin, Minister of State and Winston’s doughty batman in the department, stepped in to do the honours. Besides being in possession of a seat – if not a renewed government mandate – Brendan is from Kerry and therefore can speak with authority on tourism for as long as it takes.

We’ll miss the entertainingly controversial Ross, though. Oh, it’s all fun and games until somebody loses an eye, as your mammy might say. Or in this case, it’s all fun and games until Winston loses his seat.

Toodle pip, old bean.

Unelected

Next up after sitting Griffin was another of our unelected but constitutionally legitimate Ministers – Katherine Zappone of the Kildare Street twilight zone. As she has not reached the pandemic swaddling stage, the serving Minister for Children (without a seat) was able to report for duty.

More statements with some questions and some answers. Some good questions asked, some answered and views and thoughts aplenty. But the real work of governing still a distance away.

During replies to the Taoiseach’s statement, a number of deputies, including Mary Lou McDonald and Solidarity/PBP’s Richard Boyd Barrett and Mick Barry, referred to former Debenhams workers protesting outside Leinster House over the closure of the UK-based retailer’s stores in Ireland and the loss of 2,000 jobs.

“The essential workers of today cannot become the forgotten workers of tomorrow,” said the Sinn Féin leader, referring to the praise which has been heaped upon retail workers in Europe during this crisis.

Debenhams staff were let go with statutory redundancy and “cast aside” when the stores closed due to the pandemic.

She accused the Government sitting on its hands and doing nothing to secure those jobs. “It looks like Debenhams will get off scot-free and the workers are left high and dry. Perhaps we should start there, with that set of workers, to demonstrate what the new recovery and new economic and social order might be.”

At least the staff – peacefully protesting and observing social distancing – were not moved on this time by the gardaí. Messages on their placards included “FF-FG-Greens, invest to save 2000 jobs” and “Make Debenhams jobs an issue in government formation”.

A government would be nice too.

In terms of Europe, the Fianna Fáil leader (and possible next taoiseach) ruminated on the nature of democracy and those leaders who are using the crisis “as an opportunity to entrench themselves”.

In particular, the rule of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán was “deeply corrosive” and “to simply ignore this and to hope it will sort itself out isn’t good enough”.

And not forgetting, comforted Micheál Martin, the threat of “a chaotic Brexit” is still very much with us.

Accountability

Hungary also featured in the discussion on tourism. Fianna Fáil’s Marc MacSharry is very concerned about the government’s lack of accountability.

Recent announcements “were made – funny enough, not to the House, [but] to the media – which is standard. I mean, at least Hungary has formally suspended their parliament. We’ve just kind of somewhat suspended ours in terms of the working of it.”

MacSharry, when he isn’t fuming, is fulminating. He informed the Ceann Comhairle he was using all his allotted time to make a statement.

“And questions that may arise, perhaps the Minister can impose upon one of Taoiseach Varadkar’s Six-One or Late Late Show slots to give me the answers. In the meantime, I gotta get a few things on the record.”

Never mind Leo’s ears (it’s just as well he’s a doctor). That burn was felt in western Balkans.

In the imagination of Marc, Fianna Fáil’s perpetually blowing gasket.

On day two of the Dáil’s packed week, the Tánaiste will assume a leading role.

Simon Coveney is bringing Brexit.

It’ll be a nice change from the Covid.

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