Miriam Lord: Murphy wisely swerves dodgy optics of caravan photo

Pictures of politicians splashing about without a care can make many people violently ill

Irish Times Political Editor Pat Leahy reports from the Fine Gael pre Dáil parliamentary party think-in at Garryvoe in east Cork where Brexit and the budget are high on the agenda. Video: Bryan O’Brien


Balmy afternoon. Rolling waves. Soft light on the Atlantic sand.

Photographers. Lots of photographers.

Perfect conditions for the parade of the Murph and Surf.

But there was no sign of the Minister for Housing. He was probably delayed in his room, dithering over what pair of trunks to wear this time around. Elsewhere, the Minister for Communications said he was very much looking forward to a dip in the sea, even if the water temperature is a bit chilly in east Cork at this time of the year.

It really is the strangest thing, but when Eoghan Murphy and Richard Bruton slip away quietly for a swim during parliamentary party meetings by the seaside, photos of them splashing about in the waves inexplicably end up in the newspapers.

But not this year, it would seem.

Murphy strolled into the Grand Ballroom of the Garryvoe Hotel fully suited and booted.

Not going for a swim then?

“No,” he sighed. “We’re banned. Myself and Richard have been told if we’re seen in public in our togs we’ll be shot.”

Fine Gael bosses have finally twigged that pictures of politicians splashing about like they don’t have a care in the world can make a lot of people violently ill.

Upon reflection, Murphy was better off keeping away from the sands near Ballycotton, where a lot of holiday home parks look out to sea. A snap in front of a large collection of trailers and caravans would not be the right look for a minister for housing under pressure.

So Murphy and Bruton had to make do with the bracing delights of an afternoon spent discussing policy with colleagues in a dimly lit hall. They also enjoyed a soporific wallow in the delightful musings of former taoiseach John Bruton, who charmingly extemporised on the subject of Brexit.

Not for the first time.

But then, everything led back to Brexit here on Thursday. With a side portion of beef. Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed was on hand to tell anxious rural colleagues about the latest state of play in the stand-off between beef farmers and the meat processors. He looked tired when he arrived before lunch for the two-day session.

“I’ve reached out extensively to the picket line,” he informed the nation on radio before leaving for the think-in.

Swoon squad

The Taoiseach’s arrival was orchestrated in accordance with tradition. Upon entering the hotel he was immediately surrounded by a swoon squad of female politicians. Starry-eyed and smiling, they formed an impregnable cluster around their leader, sticking doggedly to his side until the photographers admitted defeat and went looking for Maria Bailey.

The Dún Laoghaire TD, destined to go down in song and ignominy for launching a compensation claim after she tumbled from a swing in a hotel bar while holding a drink in each hand, walked in quietly as Varadkar and his senior Ministers attracted the cameras. Two female colleagues moved in protectively by her side.

The collegial bonding began before the business, with a noisy lunch in the bar. The media, barred from the hall, had been fed earlier with a long briefing from Brexit specialists Simon Coveney and Helen McEntee. Party chairman Martin Heydon came along for good measure to outline the issues they would be tackling that afternoon in the Grand Ballroom.

Paschal Donohoe, ubiquitous across the airwaves in recent days, was going to repeat his now familiar assurances that Fine Gael is the party of prudence and he won’t be going mad splashing the cash at the next budget due to the Brexit threat and because he’s already spent all the money anyway. (He always forgets that last bit.)

Heydon explained that Paschal would tell the meeting he has to act sensibly and remain ready for “all eventualities that Brexit might throw our way in the coming months”. This is in stark contrast to Fianna Fáil, the party that is keeping Fine Gael in Government but is definitely not a forever friend.

Fianna Fáil keeps calling for more spending, said Heydon, citing the billions worth of extra demands from the Opposition with its spendthrift notions. Then he then casually dropped a clearly pre-cooked soundbite into the mix, stealing a line from the Trump playbook with a pointed reference to “Reckless Fianna Fáil”.

Expect to hear more about “Reckless Fianna Fáil” in the coming months form the reckless but recently reformed Fine Gael.

Weary Coveney

Meanwhile, Coveney, ably supported by McEntee, talked about Brexit again. He sounds weary as he trots out the same lines about Ireland’s position in relation to the UK’s intention to leave the EU on October 31st.

Can a deal be reached between Boris Johnson and Europe? Why, in God’s name, should we be optimistic about the outcome?

“Well, look, I mean, all I can to is outline the Irish position, which is that we want to find a way of getting a deal that prevents a no-deal . . . ”

It’s head-wrecking stuff.

Off campus, while Fianna Fáil were treated to a protest from beef farmers earlier in the week at their think-in in Wexford, the Fine Gaelers were untroubled by them on day one of their pre-season galvanisation session. The security around the seafront hotel seemed remarkable relaxed.

Not everyone stayed in Garryvoe. Some opted for the very lovey Castlemartyr Resort down the road. The upmarket hotel and spa has special memories for Coveney, who had his wedding reception there.

Back at Garryvoe, a couple of Americans “on an agricultural study tour” of Ireland were delighted to find themselves in the “exalting” presence of the Irish prime minister.

Michael Kirtley and Susan Kennefick-Kirtley, from the wonderfully titled city of Champaign-Urbana in Illinois, had their photographs taken with Varadkar, who is getting good at the glad-handing. There was a time when he could hardly bear the press-fleshing element of politics, but when the couple asked him to stand in for a photo, he budged up beside them like Enda in his element and turned on a huge smile.

Michael is an agricultural tour operator (such a thing exists? Who knew?) and he will be at the National Ploughing Championships next week as a guest of Charles Smith of the Irish Aberdeen Angus Society. The visiting couple are sure to get a better welcome than Leo when they go to Carlow. The Taoiseach will have to run the gauntlet of protesting farmers who have a big beef with him over prices.

Oh my gosh

After Leo left for the group photograph outside, Michael and Susan expressed their delight at meeting him.

“Oh my gosh, it was so exciting,” said Susan.

“He is a very impressive gentleman,” Michael added.

Midway through the afternoon, more fodder was laid on for the press in the form of a visit from Paschal before he left for a finance ministers’ meeting in Finland. He was accompanied by Regina Doherty, Charlie Flanagan, Joe McHugh and an unmerciful pong of slurry.

Just a coincidence. The windows were open.

We found out that the theme of their mini-conference was “a better deal for families”. TDs, Ministers, Senators and general election candidates (brought along to be shoehorned into as many photos as possible) gathered in a hall that was far too big for them, seated at round tables. It was like a scene from an awkward wedding reception before the drink kicks in.

Oh, but the bonding. It was really terrific.

Flanagan got carried away with the feeling as he stood with his three colleagues.

“What you are seeing here is Team Fine Gael,” he boomed.

There was nothing more to say.

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