Miriam Lord: Populist band of travellers seeks recognition

Cultural differences come to fore as Fianna Fáil minority asserts itself on water issue

 Fianna Fáil’s Barry Cowen with party colleagues Senator Lorraine Clifford Lee and Willie O’Dea. Bazza wasn’t going to be pushed around anymore by Coveney or Enda Kenny or any other Blueshirt. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

Fianna Fáil’s Barry Cowen with party colleagues Senator Lorraine Clifford Lee and Willie O’Dea. Bazza wasn’t going to be pushed around anymore by Coveney or Enda Kenny or any other Blueshirt. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins


Emotionally drained, after a turbulent year, the brave men and women marched down the plinth and faced the press. They were determined to be themselves – proud to be Irish, yet a distinct group from a unique culture.

It was time.

Time for Fianna Fáil to assert its rights as an ethnic political minority.

A people with a colourful past and a rich heritage of mohair suits and big Mercs and traditional envelopes of the buff variety. Until the modern ways arrived, they lived for years in a big tent in Galway, existing on a diet of canapés and champagne.

Fianna Fáil – a people within a people with a distinct cultural language of its own. For too long relegated to the shade, forced to work in the shadow of Fine Gael since the dark days of 2011. “Cute Hoors” they were called. “Latchicos.”

“No more!” they cried yesterday. “No more!”

Barry Cowen spoke for them. A veteran of countless humiliations at the hands of FG (well, one, last December, when he squared up to Simon Coveney and Simon told him to sling his hook over a Fianna Fáil demand to reduce the rent cap), Bazza wasn’t going to be pushed around anymore by Coveney or Enda Kenny or any other Blueshirt.

For Cowen is of Fianna Fáil, a noble and intensely populist band of political travellers. Populist and unashamedly so, with a strong tradition of giving the people what they want, no matter what the long-term cost or damage might be.

Rising up

On this joyous morning the party celebrated its populist roots by rising up against the Merchant Prince oppressor (Coveney, and him reared by hand in Cork) and declared it would bring about a general election if their demands on water charges are not met.

Sadly, Simon Coveney, on behalf of Fine Gael, dug in his heels and refused those demands.

Barry, surrounded by fellow Fianna Fáilers, insisted that his people are entitled to change their views on the implementation of water charges in accordance with their beliefs that no Sinn Féiners are going to steal a march on them when it comes to the issue of water.

A meeting yesterday afternoon of the Joint Committee on the Future Funding of Domestic Water Services ended without agreement on how to proceed. Historic and deep rooted cultural differences between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil came to the fore.

They are hoping “a position paper” tomorrow might help them resolve their differences.

Sinn Féin, meanwhile, is very happy in its ethnic footprint. A happy-go-lucky people, they live in the moment.

Here’s the woman who would be their leader, Mary Lou McDonald, outlining to the Dáil her party’s current stance on water charges. It is not the same as the position they adopted when the issue was first on the agenda, but they don’t talk about that now.

“I listened this morning to Willie O’Dea refusing to rule out water charges by the back door and peddling the myth surrounding excessive use, for which there is absolutely no evidence. It remains to be seen what the Fianna Fáil position will be,” she began, turning her nose up at any notion that a political party might act in a populist fashion.

“Sinn Féin, on the other hand, has been clear all along – no water charges ...”

The chamber erupted. Mary Lou: it’s the way she tells ’em. Sinn Féin’s deputy leader kept a straight face while hilarity ensued.

“...by the front or back door.”

Sterling efforts

There was no sign of Barry Cowen in the Fianna Fáil ranks. Probably exhausted after his sterling efforts in standing up for the culture of his party earlier on.

Ruth Coppinger of the Anti-Austerity Alliance was in good spirits, though. Unusually, she smiled her way though most of Leaders’ Questions, her colleague Paul Murphy similarly beaming by her side. They feel their anti-water charges crusade is almost at its end and are enjoying the moment.

So Coppinger focused instead on the campaign to repeal the eighth amendment on abortion.

She said the Taoiseach has been asked on numerous occasions to hold a referendum on the matter, but to no avail.

“It doesn’t look like we will get much different from your two potential replacements because ... while there’ll be generational change in the Fine Gael leadership it doesn’t look like there will be generational change on abortion, because your two apprentices are old heads on young shoulders. They are still stuck in the past on this issue.”

Enda was stuck by what she had to say about the forthcoming contest for his job as Fine Gael leader. He struck a slightly puzzled note about it. “She seems to know something I don’t know about numbers contesting some vacancy at some time in the future. She seems to have more detail than I do.”

He’s a gas man, is Enda. “Some vacancy at some time in the future.”

For the day that was in it (Ash Wednesday) there was a very good turnout of people in the Dáil sporting the blessed ashes on their foreheads. More of them this year than in previous years.

Splash the ash

This might have had something to do with the efforts of senator Rónán Mullen and deputy Mattie McGrath to splash the ash around Leinster House. They were operating a franchise – Mullen dispensing ash from a small pouch to passers-by outside the Leinster House 2000 annex with McGrath patrolling the catering areas, holding his pre-blessed ashes in a paper soup cup.

Earlier in the day, they had mass in the Members’ restaurant.

We didn’t notice any Sinn Féin TDs or senators with a mark on their forehead. Ash is a sore point as a result of the wood-burning incinerator controversy in the North. If Mattie and Rónán had asked for wee donations while they were doing their godly work around the premises (which they didn’t), they might have been accused of operating a cash-for-ash scheme.

The day ended on a very happy and celebratory note when the Taoiseach gave formal recognition to Travellers as a distinct ethnic group.

So many of them came to Leinster House for the event that crowds were left outside the gates.

Bríd Smith of the Anti-Austerity Alliance made a plea for settled people in the gallery to leave their seats and give them to Travellers.

After the speeches, when the Taoiseach spoke movingly of the hopes and dreams of a 15-year-old Traveller called Robbie (and everyone wondered if Robbie was in the gallery, stuck in the crowd outside the gates, or a figment of Enda’s imagination) the House rose and applauded the Travellers in the gallery, who were also on their feet and applauding.

It will have given hope to other ethnic minorities, such as Fianna Fáil.