Miriam Lord’s Political Awards 2020: the winners and losers

Micheál Martin’s prediction about an ‘interesting’ year came true, and then some

Around this time last year, when the Dáil adjourned for Christmas, there was a heightened air of expectation about the new year to come. A general election was on the horizon and TDs could think of little else.

On that last sitting in 2019 – which also turned out to be the final sitting of the 32nd Dáil – Micheál Martin wished everyone “an interesting and an exciting 2020, because I’m sure it will be exciting and it will be interesting”.

Not least for the Fianna Fáil leader, who was hoping to lead the party back into power after a difficult decade in the post-bailout wilderness.

He got his wish, although there must have been times in this extraordinary year when he wondered if it was worth all the effort. “Interesting and exciting” might be one way of describing it.


Bonkers might be another.

An election, a new Government, a redefined political landscape and a catalogue of Government cock-ups is usually enough to be getting on with. Not this year, when a global pandemic overran the petty everyday of Irish politics.

People kept calling it the “new normal”, but there was nothing and there still is nothing normal about the stop-start disruption of lives and livelihoods caused by a virus few had taken heed of 12 months ago.

A year of new words: Covid, Coronavirus, Lockdown, Wet Pub, Cocooning, Golfgate, Calculated Grades and, most unimaginable of them all, Grand Coalition of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

Here’s a few awards for 2020.

Before and after award

Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar for enthusiastically taking lumps out of each other before the general election and then, ever so slowly, coming together to form a historic coalition between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael after nearly a century of mutual loathing.

“You’re a nasty piece of work,” Micheál told Leo on his last day in Opposition.

“Putting Micheál Martin back in office would be like putting John Delaney back in charge of the FAI in nine years’ time,” Leo said about Micheál during the Prime Time election debate.

Most entertaining politician

The problem with this category is that it is far too easy to confuse entertaining with infuriating.

The winner here is Marc MacSharry. Always guaranteed to come up with an incendiary quote or five during his much-anticipated cameos at the weekly Fianna Fáil parliamentary party Zoom meeting. He has also decided to become a fearless defender of the people at the Public Accounts Committee by roaring fearlessly at witnesses while his colleagues throw their eyes to heaven and smirk.

His comments on the suitability of the Dublin Convention Centre as an alternative Dáil venue have won favour with TDs from all sides, while his charge that some public servants are lazy and taking advantage of working from home by laying on the sofa and watching box-sets was either brave or foolish, but it caused a stir.

His father Ray was a big noise in national and European politics. Now it’s time for “Baby Marc doo doo doo doo doo doo”.

Political notions of the year

Sinn Féin and its leader, Mary Lou McDonald

The party had a magnificent election and easily could have won more seats had it fielded more candidates. But it didn’t, so while it was a great result which brought Sinn Féin firmly into the mainstream, the seat numbers weren’t enough for a ground-breaking entry into government.

This didn’t stop headquarters staging a daft series of moral victory rallies in a Trump-like effort to question the result and present Mary Lou as the real taoiseach. Party chairman Declan Kearney wrote in An Phoblacht of “a very Irish coup”, accusing the “establishment parties” of attempting to subvert the popular demand for change and stop Sinn Féin getting into power.

Pearse Doherty, invoking the spirit of Princess Diana, told a packed rally in Liberty Hall: “Mary Lou is the people’s taoiseach”.

Unfortunately, on this occasion, she didn’t win the election.

Riverdance award for nifty diplomatic footwork

In the days before New York woke up to the Covid threat, John and Moya McColgan took Riverdance to Radio City Music Hall for its 8th run in the Big Apple. They did it to help out the Irish push for a prestigioius seat on the UN Security Council. The international diplomats on the guest list loved the show.

Canada and Norway were also in the running for the two available spots. Then taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his tánaiste, Simon Coveney, along with Geraldine Byrne Nason, Ireland’s permanent rep at the UN, led the charge.

Ireland’s bid was successful, beating Canada to the prize, so plaudits to all.

Hands across the ocean award

Leo Varadkar for that spine-tingling speech in the cold, pre-dawn darkness outside Blair House in Washington DC, when he first announced that Ireland would have to go into lockdown.

“We said we would take the right actions at the right time. We have to move now to have the greatest impact.”

This was uncharted territory, with a deathly virus threatening the world and a panicked public back home responding by hysterically buying up vast amounts of toilet paper.

His words conveyed strength and a steadying leadership. After the annual St Patrick’s week visit to the White House for a socially distanced meeting with Donald Trump, Varadkar flew home.

His next speech, the one he delivered from inside Government Buildings on a tense St Patrick’s night when a worried nation hung on his every word, was superb.

A lot has changed since then, Covid-19 fatigue has set in and the stop-start sequence of lockdown is wearing everyone down. Such an address now would not have the same impact.

But it was so right at the time – pitch perfect, powerful, inspiring and reassuring. And for that, it is the only contender for Speech of the Year.

Survivor of the year

After leaking a confidential government document to an acquaintance with a legitimate interest in its content, Leo Varadkar was lucky not to get his marching papers. But in the interest of saving the Government, he was reluctantly pardoned by his coalition partners.

Former minister for justice Alan Shatter is a survivor too. Long after he was forced to resign on foot of the Guerin Report into alleged Garda mishandling of whistle-blower Maurice McCabe’s claims, Shatter was vindicated. It took him years of litigation, ending in the highest court in the land.

In December, following pressure from the dogged solicitor, the government announced it was redacting the passages in the report relating to him from the copy which is laid in the Dáil library.

A victory of sorts, but not much to cheer about for the former minister, given all that has happened since.

However, the gong goes to overnight sensation, Micheál Martin, Fianna Fáil leader and veteran of governments past who stayed and fought to rebuild the party when the public kicked it out after the economic collapse.

When Fianna Fáil lay in tatters after the 2011 election, few would have bet on Micheál becoming Taoiseach. He achieved that goal in June.

Survivor of the year #2

This goes to Séamus Woulfe, the outgoing Attorney General who was too outgoing for his own good. Woulfe, AG in Leo Varadkar’s Fine Gael led government, waltzed into a nice job in the Supreme Court without many passing comment on how, or why, he got it.

Then he attended the ill-fated Oireachtas Golf Society outing in August and stayed for the dinner. He didn’t notice all the people there because they were behind a partition which was behind his table, although they were guests at the same function. The partition was pulled across for the prizegiving and speeches, but apparently he didn’t notice that either.

He was interviewed by a former Chief Justice. It didn’t go well. The current Chief Justice said he couldn’t ask him to resign but he wanted him to resign, which wasn’t much help to anyone.

Woulfe lawyered up with some big legal guns. He is still is situ. Seamus is going nowhere, and he has every right to do so.

Most popular government department

Has to be the Department of Agriculture, which has seen four ministers cross the threshold in one year.

Fine Gael’s Micheal Creed had his foot under the table before the election. He gave way to Barry Cowen, who was forced to quit by his boss Micheál Martin for refusing to come into the Dáil to address questions relating to a historic drink-driving conviction.

Barry’s successor Dara Calleary had to resign when ‘Golfgate’ broke. He was at the Cabinet meeting which agreed tougher new Covid restrictions the day before attending the infamous dinner in Connemara.

SuperSuperSub Charlie McConalogue now holds sway in Ag House.

Upset of the year

Shared by Leas Cheann Comhairle Catherine Connolly and Cathaoirleach of the Seanad, Mark Daly, both of whom were surprise winners of the elections for their respective positions.

Fine Gael’s Fergus O’Dowd had been expected to become deputy chair of the Dáil but lost the secret ballot following a mutiny by a number of Government TDs. An estimated 15 of them defied instructions and paved the way for Connolly, an independent TD for Galway West, to become the first woman to hold the office.

Fianna Fáil senator Daly took advantage of a battle between the two front runners for the position of Seanad Cathaoirleach by nipping up along the rails and confounding them both. Party colleagues Denis O’Donovan, the outgoing chair, and Diarmuid Wilson were so preoccupied with each other that they failed to see the Kerryman as he outpaced them and took the prize.

Best newcomer

A difficult one when so few people are allowed in the Dáil chamber and when it’s almost impossible to see anyone in the Convention Centre auditorium until they are senior players in the front rows.

Six nominations:

Duncan Smith of Labour – impressive debut.
Richard O'Donoghue, Rural Independents – forceful speaker.
Máiread Farrell and Claire Kerrane of Sinn Féin - excellent performers inside and outside the Dáil.
Holly Cairns of the Social Democrats – rocked the strong Dáil greyhound lobby with her well-supported motion to end State funding for the sector.
Norma Foley, Fianna Fáil TD and Minister for Education.

The winner is Foley, a teacher and county councillor in Kerry who went straight into the Department of Education on her first day as a TD in the new Dáil.

It would have been a tough year for an experienced minister, never mind a rookie TD. Foley’s earliest performances in the Dáil were hesitant and a little shaky and left her open to a media mauling on her ability to do the job.

Politics is cruel. Norma was given no time to settle into the job before the critics pounced. Colleagues, including some from her own party, whispered almost gleefully about the foolishness of giving an inexperienced schoolteacher (a woman) such a responsible job.

But Norma found her feet quickly as Covid threw the Leaving Cert into turmoil and is proving a steady, authoritative and safe pair of hands.

Senator of the year

For her tireless approach, collegial outlook, level of research, grasp of detail, participation in debates and undimmed enthusiasm for the job, the award goes to university senator, Alice Mary Higgins.

Minister of the year

There is no standout here, but the gong goes to Simon Harris, who was battling criticism of his stewardship of the Department of Health at the beginning of the year but came into his own during the pandemic.

Few will argue that his superb communication skills played a huge part in calming an anxious public as the virus took hold in communities. He was the star of government in this difficult period and has given successor Stephen Donnelly a hard act to follow.

TD of the year

This always seems to go to a taoiseach, leader of the opposition or a minister. But our gong is going to Labour leader Alan Kelly, who has made a big mark in his first year in the job.

He may be OTT at times and his tendency to blow a gasket in search of column inches isn’t always entertaining, but Kelly has tempered his ways in recent months.

He has a knack of hitting on the issues that grab the public’s attention. He nailed Leo Varadkar’s shameless stealing of the limelight even though he’s not in charge anymore, asking Micheál Martin the question many were thinking: “I’m beginning to wonder, who’s the Taoiseach?”

It is a testimony to his effectiveness that he has stolen the thunder of main Opposition leader and star Dáil performer Mary Lou McDonald on numerous occasions.

He had a good run with pay for ministerial advisers, Simon Coveney’s car, Leaving Cert calculated grades, Séamus Woulfe’s appointment, test and trace shortcomings and the need for a “czar” to oversee the vaccination programme.

Kelly has also managed to stay on side with the Taoiseach through his conciliatory approach, supporting and praising aspects of Government policy before going on the attack.

It’s working. He has also lifted Labour back onto the news pages and boosted the party’s profile. Whether he can revive its reputation with a stubbornly hostile electorate is another matter.