Miriam Lord: Nphet’s efforts to flatten the leaky curve fall flat

The House ushers in a special moment but has no time for unladylike behaviour

Spare a thought for the poor members of Nphet, many plucked from the groves of Academe or harvested from the higher echelons of the HSE and Civil Service. They may be wonderful at predicting medical outcomes or interrogating a spreadsheet, but might not be as familiar with the cut and thrust – or leak and counterleak – of frontline politics.

Some of the more sheltered eggheads have been quite startled to discover their recommendations surfacing in newspapers and commentators discussing their deliberations before they are made public. Then they find themselves at the centre of aggressive counter-briefing from the Government and it’s just not very nice at all.

What to do? In an effort to flatten the leaky curve, there have been concentrated efforts at thinking outside the pox.

After a dressing down this week from the deputy chief medical officer, Dr Ronan Glynn, over the amount of times "Nphet sources" are quoted in the media, we hear one member of the team suggested a pioneering cure in an effort to reverse the trend.


What about entering into an entente cordiale with the press? What about asking journalists to agree, in the national interest, not to have anything to do with leaks? What about requesting the hacks to turn up their noses at any little morsel falling from the Nphet table?


And the contretemps over leaking duly leaks.

The experts continued their meeting and agreed the letter they would send to the Government recommending escalation to Level 5 restrictions.

The next morning, full details of the letter, signed by Canonised Medical Officer Tony Holohan, appeared on the front page of the Irish Daily Mail.

Meanwhile, on Friday afternoon, Fine Gael backbencher Alan Farrell twisted the knife with a provocative little tweet which he probably came up with all of own accord.

“It appears that Nphet are briefing the media again ahead of its primary function of advising Cabinet, causing speculation and worry. If this leaking continues, questions must be asked as to whether or not the body is fit for purpose in its current form.”

Of course, asking questions of Nphet means diverting attention away from asking questions of the Government, a situation which always goes down well in Merrion Street. The Government ignored a similar request two weeks ago for an immediate move to Level 5. Will it get its way this time?

A nation nervously awaits the next leak.

Ushering in a special moment

There was a nice moment before the start of the budget speeches on Tuesday when the Ceann Comhairle said it was a very special occasion for two reasons: It was the first time that a budget had been delivered outside of the august surroundings of Leinster House and it was also the last Dáil sitting for head usher Colm O'Rourke, who retired after 14 years of sterling service to the Houses of the Oireachtas.

“All will agree that Colm has given outstanding, distinguished and sterling service,” said Sean Ó Feargháil to applause from politicians and staff in the Conference Centre’s auditorium. Members of the Oireachtas press gallery were among those applauding.

Ushers keep Leinster House running smoothly and they remain unfailingly courteous in the face of all sorts of demands from the ever-present small cohort of politicians and handlers who think they own the place.

“He will be greatly missed. His will be a very hard act to follow and we wish him and his wife, Blaithín, many long years of happy retirement together.”

Unladylike behaviour

A lady Senator said a bold word in the Upper House on Friday afternoon, thoroughly disregarding the manly blushes of the sensitive Cathaoirleach who was quite discomfited by his experience (bravely borne).

Sharon Keogan, the independent Senator from Meath, was speaking on the Order of Business about the EU's flight travel policy. She said the country needed to reopen for business to thrive and if people couldn't travel in and out of Ireland, we would be alienated from the rest of the EU after Brexit.

"So we do not want to be a pimple on the ass of Europe," declared Sharon, unaware that Mark Daly was having a fit of the vapours in the Chair.

He had to intervene.

“Sorry, sorry, Senator,” gasped Mark.

“Oh sorry, I can’t use that word? Oh sorry. Excuse me,” Sharon was flustered but she attempted to resume her speech.

But the Cathaoirleach seemed determined to tell her where she went wrong, so she stopped and started to apologise again. “Sorry. Oh, I beg your pardon. So sorry….”

Mark explained: “I appreciate your use of the terminology, it’s unparliamentary is all I’m saying.”

Sharon apologised profusely. Again and again, to the rising amusement of her colleagues.

“You’re grand,” granted Mark, but he couldn’t just leave it at that. “It’s slightly unladylike.”

That’s what he said. “Unladylike.” But only slightly, to be fair. He wasn’t calling Sharon a foul-mouthed hussy, or anything.

Senator Michael McDowell tried to assist.

“Posterior is a better word,” ventured the leading Senior Counsel.

“We do not want to be a pimple on the posterior of Europe,” repeated Sharon, anxious to continue her contribution.

“It’s slightly unladylike is all I am saying,” repeated the Cathaoirleach, unnecessarily.

“Oh really? Sorry. Oh sorry. Well, okay,” babbled Sharon, before the full and true enormity of the situation hit her. “Oh. Cathaoirleach. Are you saying that I’m unladylike?”

"No, I said…the phrase, the phrase, just to be clear, the phrase is slightly unladylike," oozed the Fianna Fáil senator from Kenmare, who is 47 years old.

“Thank you kindly,” squeaked Sharon, all of a tizzy.

“You are most definitely a lady, there is no doubt about it,” dripped Mark.

“Oh my goodness!” she breathed. “Oh my goodness, I’ve run out of time. But I hope, so sorry, so sorry and I apologise to the Chair and to the House, sorry for the word.”

The broadminded Chair was the heart of generosity and forgiveness.

“That’s quite alright. The Chair took absolutely no offence from the phrase. I would just point out it’s unparliamentary and slightly unladylike…”

At this point, Senator Vincent P Martin decided to intervene. Like McDowell, he too is a distinguished Senior Counsel.

“What about ungentlemanlylike?” he inquired. Fair play to him.

But the Cathaoirleach was standing his ground.

“The phrase is slightly unladylike,” he persisted, but finishing with a compliment for Sharon so she wouldn’t be too downcast having been confronted with the slightly unladylike charge from him. “I know that the Senator is also too humble to mention her own great work in the area that she first brought up, in the area of fostering, and I thank you for bringing up that issue.”

Message from the 1950s for Mark Daly: The 1950s called and they want their senator back. On his ass.

Laundry lady

This very odd exchange happened at the same time as some Seanad members were talking about the US presidential election.

As Seanad leader, Fine Gael's Regina Doherty had to reply to the various contributions during the Order of Business. She said she wouldn't comment on the election but agreed with calls for a debate on it.

Particularly “when we have a lady, Amy Coney Barrett, being asked about who does the laundry in her house when she is being interviewed for one of the most serious and senior positions in the American judiciary”. This, said Senator Doherty, “is an absolute disgrace regardless of whether one agrees with her politics or the politics of the party that has proposed her, and so I think it goes to show that we have a hell of a long way to go to achieve equality, not just in Ireland but in the world.”

Senator Ronan Mullen thinks of Judge Coney Barrett as "a very impressive candidate for the US Supreme Court" who "wouldn't have a hope in hell of being nominated by a Democratic administration" which was a great pity in his view.

Amy would never use the word “ass”.

Ronan Mullen and Mark Daly would approve.

Private booths

The Superwomen and Supermen of Dáil Éireann are in dire need of a few phone booths in the Convention Centre because at the moment they have nowhere to change into their Superhero outfits should the need arise.

This gaping omission in the facilities available during temporary sittings at the centre was spotted by Sinn Féin’s Pádraig MacLochlainn, who got in touch with Oireachtas authorities to point out the omission.

As a result, six “private” rooms have been provided on the ground floor where the meeting area, cafeteria and work desks are located.

These translation booths can be used by TDs and Senators for online meetings. “The booths provide a good degree of soundproofing, and will facilitate a greater degree of privacy than is available in party and group rooms,” they were told this week.

Booths can be booked in advance or people can take a chance on finding a free one.

Only one person may occupy a booth at one time.

“Each user of a booth must sanitise contact surfaces [desk, door handle, seat handle, light switch] before using the booth, and before leaving it. Disinfectant wipes have been provided in each booth and, once used, they should be placed in the plastic bags provided, and then disposed of in the pedal bin in each booth.”

Nothing about red lights. Or curtains.

You’d be looking for danger money to empty those bins.

Naked faces

Still on the subject of the Convention Centre, Paschal Donohoe and Michael McGrath were criticised for not wearing masks when they made their big entrance into the building on budget day. The Ministers were photographed from above as they ascended an escalator in the soaring atrium, not a shred of a face covering on either of them.

Irish-born architect Kevin Roche’s design offers wonderful possibilities for photographs, with light streaming through the curved glass facade and panoramic views of the city skyline providing a breathtaking backdrop. The Ministers were not going to ruin their lovely posterity pictures by covering up their snouts. However, they wore masks at all time, removing them only for the escalator shots, when they stood two metres apart.

Dermod Dwyer, executive chairman of the Convention Centre Dublin, told us the high mezzanine walkway running the length of the glass wall was specifically designed with formal State photographs in mind. It certainly does the job. The politicians adore it.

He also revealed that the Dáil’s occasional pandemic home on the banks of the Liffey has an unusual connection with Dáil Éireann.

The Conference Centre, which opened in 2010, was Kevin Roche’s only Irish project. The internationally renowned architect died in America last year aged 96 and counted the prestigious Pritzker Prize among his many awards. And his father, Eamon, was a Sinn Féin (anti-treaty) TD in the third Dáil.