Miriam Lord: Restricted movement for Leo as Micheál finds his stride

We are learning that a pandemic, along with a week, is a long time in politics

“Coronavirus carrier at EU trade council triggers top-level quarantines,” reported Politico Europe on Thursday.

We knew that, because Tánaiste Leo Varadkar was one of them. But there were at least two others – including Phil Hogan's replacement as trade commissioner. According to the Brussels-based news agency, it was an Irish official who could have potentially infected some of the EU's most senior politicians.

"An Irish staffer with coronavirus at Monday's informal meeting of trade ministers in Berlin has forced EU trade chief Valdis Dombrovskis and German economy minister Peter Altmaier to put themselves in quarantine," says the agency, noting that Varadkar is also restricting his movements.

Altmaier, who chaired the meeting, tweeted on Wednesday that he learned a member of an EU minister’s staff attending the Council of Trade Ministers in Berlin tested positive for coronavirus and added he had placed himself in quarantine as a precaution.


Dombrovskis, the former Latvian PM who is the European Commission’s vice-president and acting trade commissioner, also tweeted on Wednesday that he had put himself into quarantine after coming into contact with someone who tested positive. He stressed that social distancing was observed, he had no symptoms and was feeling well.

“That contact was in the Irish delegation at the informal trade council, two EU officials confirmed,” says Politico.

The Berlin meeting was hosted by Altmaier as part of Germany's six-month EU presidency. He is the second German minister this week to go into self-isolation. Foreign minister Heiko Maas also went home on Wednesday after one of his security detail tested positive. (Nationality unknown.)

Restricted movements

Perhaps this was the reason Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney declared he was restricting his movements after he returned from a meeting in Brussels with his European counterparts.

Meanwhile, Taoiseach Micheál Martin's plans to attend the EU summit this week were pushed back when EU Council president Charles Michel cancelled Thursday and Friday's meetings because he was in contact with a security officer who tested positive. (Didn't feel the need to publicise his nationality.)

After two negative tests for the virus, Michel has rescheduled the summit for the end of next week. Micheál shouldn’t get his hopes up too much – we are learning that a pandemic, along with a week, is a long time in politics.

And then there's Paschal Donohoe, another victim of the Great Confinement of 2020. He was asked to restrict his movements after his French counterpart Bruno Le Maire tested positive for the virus a week after attending a Eurogroup meeting in Berlin. The Minister for Finance was chairing his first meeting as Eurogroup president.

The group is set to meet in a couple of weeks’ time. It is up to the German hosts to decide whether to hold a physical meeting – in which case Paschal will have to attend to chair it – or a virtual one. The way things are going, it might be best all round if everyone stays put.

As the French minister for finance can attest, one problem with this accursed virus is that people don't realise they are carriers until symptoms appear after the event. A similar slow burn situation appears to have arisen with a member of the Tánaiste's team. "One of the people I work with, one of the officials in my department, unfortunately had symptoms, and did the right thing – stayed at home and got a test and tested positive but, because we'd been working closely together I'm required now to restrict my movements" he told RTÉ's Claire Byrne on Thursday. "I have tested negative so there's no consequences for anyone who's been in contact with me, but the rules are the rules and I have to work from home for this next little while."

We hope the official is feeling better. That’s the main thing.

Born to run

Tributes for the new Leas Chathaoirleach of the Seanad were still flooding in when the Upper House reconvened on Wednesday.

Fine Gael’s Joe O’Reilly was elected to the position on the previous Friday and his elevation was welcomed by colleagues on all sides who took nearly an hour extending their good wishes to the Cavan-based Senator. Joe was first elected to the Seanad in 1989, he lost his seat in 1993 and was successful again in 2007. He served in the Dáil during Enda Kenny’s 2011 administration before returning in the Seanad in 2016.

The role of Leas Chathaoirleach must be very special. When Kerry's Paul Coghlan was elected to the role in the last Seanad, he was overcome with emotion during his acceptance speech. Joe was similarly overjoyed when he had greatness thrust upon him after his colleague Jerry Buttimer had to step down as deputy chair following his involvement in the Clifden dinner fiasco.

Jerry very graciously offered his successor every good wish and pledged his full co-operation: “I hope his tenure is longer than mine.”

Fianna Fáil’s Diarmuid Wilson, a fellow Cavan man, waxed lyrical about Joe’s many qualities.

"Senator Joe O'Reilly is a good man. He has devoted his entire adult life to politics, his community and the Fine Gael party while also nurturing a family and not forgetting his friends. There has been much talk of new politics in recent years but Senator Joe O'Reilly represents everything good about old politics – decency, loyalty, courtesy, kindness and consideration."

Presidential material

The Independent Senators were equally kind. Gerard Craughwell – who has some experience in the matter – went as far as to say that Joe was presidential material.

And while Sinn Féin nominated Fintan Warfield for the position, their members hadn’t a bad word to say about Joe.

In his reply, the popular Senator reflected on all the lovely things his colleagues said about him and mused that most people never got the chance to enjoy such an experience when they’re alive. “They’re hearing it from the other side.”

His thank-you speech was long and wide-ranging, going right back to the foundation of the State. He quoted Thomas Westropp Bennett, the last chairman of the 1922 Seanad. As you do.

He singled out the younger members of the Upper House for mention, describing them as “our greatest jewels”.

Joe was overjoyed with this singular honour, and his colleagues were genuinely delighted for him.

Infinite opportunity

“In conclusion, this is a special day for me. Growing up on a small farm in Cavan, I would never have thought that I would one day become Leas-Chathaoirleach of Seanad Éireann. I mention that not only to underline my gratitude but to tell young people that, in this great Republic, they can be anything they want to be.”

(Unless they unwisely choose to go to a golf dinner in Connemara during a pandemic.)

There wasn’t a dry eye in the House.

When business resumed on Wednesday, the tributes started up again. This time from Senators who hadn’t been present to express their good wishes on Friday.

Among them was Sinn Féin's Paul Gavan.

“You’ve been a friend and comrade at the Council of Europe and I wish you well. As this is your first day in the chair, you should know that it is an auspicious day. It’s also Bruce Springsteen’s birthday – so, a fine day to start.

At the end of Gavan’s contribution on the Investment Limited Partnerships Bill, Leas-Chathaoirleach O’Reilly, somewhat bashfully, made a little observation.

"In your gracious earlier remarks you mentioned Bruce Springsteen and, I suppose, it occurs to me to say that as politicians, we are all born to run."

Pang of relief

The Taoiseach would never wish ill upon his Tánaiste and coalition partner, but he must have felt a little pang of relief upon hearing the news that Leo Varadkar would self-isolating for a little while until he gets the Covid all-clear.

There was a sense this week that, after an impressive speech on the need for further restrictions, a good run of media interviews and a steely performance defending government pandemic supports against a forceful Mary Lou McDonald in the Dáil, Micheál might be turning the corner after a bruising start. And then, just to ease him into possibly calmer waters for a breather, Leo was going to be off the pitch for a week or so.

No stealth pronouncements from the Minister for Trade to knock him off his stride.

Micheál even had a Leo-style photo opportunity laid on for Thursday morning at the scene of a rave in a Dublin flats complex last weekend which angered powerless residents and shocked the country.

He resisted the urge to wear a fluorescent jacket and hard hat. He didn’t try to say something clever for the tweets like “the name is Bond. Oliver Bond” when he arrived at the flats. But there was a pep in his step as he strode out onto the football pitch where the rave happened.

All the reporters were there and all the photographers were there, along with a surfeit of men in suits when it was the strong women from Oliver Bond who did most of the straight-talking in the aftermath of the shameful event.

Micheál’s visit was at 10am.

And at 10am, Leo Varadkar was on national radio, doing a 20-minute interview with Claire Byrne. Working from home, he stressed.

And we hear there may have been some helpful words in Cabinet from a vexed Micheál for his Tánaiste. He felt he had to remind Leo that he is Minister for Trade, for now, and not Taoiseach.

The two main coalition parties are getting on like a house on fire at Cabinet, though, with Minister for Social Protection Heather Humphreys blazing away at Fianna Fáil TDs for undermining her by going to media and demanding that all sorts of payments be increased or restored and trying to push her into a situation where she'll have no money left for anything.

Herd mentality

We did a double take when we saw the issue Independent deputy for Laois-Offaly Carol Nolan intended to raise in the Dáil on Thursday evening under topical issues. This is where TDs get a chance to raise issues of concern to them in the chamber with a relevant Minister.

They have to give the Ceann Comhairle notice of their questions and he then selects four issues for debate on a single day.

Carol wanted to talk about “Ongoing concerns surrounding the TB Herd Statement”. At first glance we thought it was something to do with the “TD” herd immunity. Sadly not.