Miriam Lord’s Week: A grand coalition of grudges beckons

An unholy marriage of FF and FG would badly squeeze Cabinet space for both parties

A hospital trolley, vintage car and Healy-Rae singalong greet TDs outside Leinster House as the 33rd Dáil convenes for the first time. Video: Kathleen Harris

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After Micheál Martin told the Dáil in no uncertain terms why his party would not countenance going into government with Sinn Féin, he put paid to the lingering whispers that Fianna Fáil might still, behind it all, sidle up to the Shinners and strike a deal.

The Fianna Fáil leader’s uncompromising speech, which was as much a message to his own base as it was a resounding rejection of a party he believes does not “operate to the same democratic standards held by every other party” in Leinster House, was the main talking point at the end of a very long first day back.

If a government is to be formed, it’s looking increasingly likely to be a Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael-led coalition with additional support from the Greens or a dolly mixture of Independents. Some Fianna Fáil TDs are nursing hopes of a “reverse confidence and supply” agreement with Fine Gael, mirroring their ill-fated support of the outgoing administration.

But the grand coalition seems to be the front runner, with “exploratory talks” in the pipeline for the big two next week. Both parties have named the members of their negotiating teams. They might have missed a trick by solely opting for people who are elected public representatives. Sinn Féin has Gerry Adams as part of its team, although the party opted to keep this interesting gobbet of information very quiet.

Imagine their conniptions if Enda and Bertie were signed up? Enda Kenny survived a palace coup and brought peace to Fine Gael. And Bertie Ahern is no slouch when it comes to negotiations, having recently brought peace to the, eh, Specific Rim.

Even if a deal is reached some time in the distant future, this once unimaginable union might prove a step too far for the rank-and-file members. They have to rubber-stamp the move.

But if it happens (in spite of a hardening of attitude among the TDs who want to stay out of government), the threat of another general election is averted and the small matter of big jobs comes into play.

At this week’s Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting, there were lively exchanges between those who want to stay in power, in the national interest, and those who want to bail out, in the national interest. Some speakers said certain colleagues were only interested in landing a cabinet post or junior ministry. We met a TD afterwards who mentioned one ministerial colleague “going around with his tongue hanging out”.

Big hitters on both sides are mumbling about the consequences of being overlooked in this situation

In the event of a grand coalition, it is very bad news for ambitious politicians. With a maximum of 15 senior ministerial jobs to fill, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael may have the paltry sum of six TDs each to reward with greatness. Our friendly political anoraks say that three jobs will have to go to the groups shoring up the marriage.

So that leaves Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney automatic choices for the first FG portfolios and Micheál Martin and his deputy Dara Calleary in the frame first off for FF. This is contingent on them still holding their leadership positions. Now the leaders must choose just four from the needy ranks nursing reasonable expectations. At the moment, the Taoiseach has a dozen Fine Gael Ministers in Cabinet.

Already, big hitters on both sides are mumbling about the consequences of being overlooked in this situation. We hear one Minister, joking in a deadly serious way, made a comment to Leo along the lines of: “You wouldn’t want to have me sitting behind you, nursing a grudge.”

It would be carnage.

Silver service

It was all hands to the pump in Leinster House on Thursday when the 33rd Dáil opened for business.

The self-service restaurant turned out 500 lunches, and the queue was out the door in the recess period between the vote for a new Ceann Comhairle and the resumption of hostilities later in the afternoon. The Oireachtas Members’ Restaurant was fully booked days in advance for family celebrations.

Mary Lou McDonald had the presence of mind to reserve a room in the Leinster House 2000 annex for her family and supporters. She picked up the tab for tea and buns for about 50 guests – adults and children – and they were able to follow the proceedings on the monitors, in comfort.

Every so often, on days when big crowds are expected, the Downton Abbey-style silver is dusted down and pressed into service again

First-time visitors will have been most impressed by the quality of the tableware in the canteen. The cutlery looked, and felt, very expensive. And it was – they had to break out the good silver to augment the dishwasher-safe knives and forks in use normally. Thursday’s heavy cutlery with ornate handles was last in regular use more than 30 years ago. Back then the overworked staff were delighted when new catering supplies arrived and they didn’t have to polish and re-silver the cutlery any more.

It was all boxed away. But every so often, on days when big crowds are expected, the Downton Abbey-style silver is dusted down and pressed into service again. The new TDs will be using the bog-standard stuff the next time they come in.

The Taoiseach, by the way, hosted his cabinet to a last supper in the Sycamore Room in Government Buildings on Tuesday night. Outside caterers supplied the nosh and most of the outgoing Ministers attended. Afterwards, a few of them – minus the Taoiseach and Tánaiste – repaired around the corner to that fine establishment called Doheny & Nesbitt, where a few sorrowful pints were sunk in the snug.

Sensational flyers

The race for the Seanad is already under way, and competition is going to be especially lively on the Trinity College panel, where outgoing Senators David Norris, Ivana Bacik and Lynn Ruane face a challenge from some interesting first-time candidates, including former rugby international Hugo MacNeill, who has quit his top job with Goldman Sachs to enter the world of politics.

Hugo’s wife, Jennifer Carroll MacNeill, won a Dáil seat on her first attempt in Dún Laoghaire, beating two Fine Gael stalwarts – outgoing Minister of State Mary Mitchell O’Connor and legal eagle Barry Ward. She is already proving a very able media performer for the party.

Jennifer Carroll MacNeill. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Jennifer Carroll MacNeill. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Barry is back on the election trail, this time seeking a Seanad seat on the industrial and commercial panel. His nominating body is RGData, the independent retailers’ association. The representative group previously nominated veteran Kerry Senator Paul Coghlan for election, but he retires this year.

Speaking of the Kingdom, former Fianna Fáil TD Tom McEllistrim, who held his seat from 2002 to 2011, is running for the agricultural panel. He lost his county council seat in May.

His slogan is “Mac to the Future”.

Meanwhile, we hear David Norris faces competition for the LGBTQ vote from activist and commentator Derek Byrne, whose campaign got off to a fabulous start on February 9th when he launched his draft campaign leaflet on his Facebook page.

It looks the business, with a photograph of the academic and journalist on one side and “Vote Derek Byrne, Seanad 2020, TCD Panel” clearly written on the other.

Then his punchy three- word election slogan unrolls:


The next day, Derek unveiled an amended version after friends queried the use of the words “Sensational” and “Provocative”.

“Having listened to advice on my promotional material, I decided to make some important changes. I believe these are the traits of a strong leader and an effective politician, to listen and make change happen when necessary,” he sensationally explained.

Turning down the volume, Derek’s flyers now say: “Conviction in my beliefs, Confident in my abilities. Not afraid to censure.”

We preferred the first one.

Ring versus local paper

Politicians are fragile creatures and there are some bruised egos and hurt feelings around Leinster House at the moment. The loss of colleagues, and in some cases, substantial amounts of votes, leaves many feeling vulnerable and unloved.

Michael Ring is one of the most upbeat TDs in the Dáil, but even he seemed to succumb to the pressure as the outcome of the election looked increasingly poor for Fine Gael. In the run-up to the vote and when the results were coming in, Ringo did what politicians do: he blamed the media for its negative attitude to him, Fine Gael and the Government.

He is still smarting over the general election result, but colleagues were irritated by his insistence at the recent parliamentary party meeting that they wouldn’t have landed a second seat in Mayo if wasn’t for his Trojan effort.

He also annoyed the local media.

Writing in this week’s Mayo News, journalist Edwin McGreal takes him to task in a lengthy comment piece headlined “Minister’s criticisms wide of the mark”.

McGreal writes that he used his election victory speech to “cut loose at the media”.

Afterwards he told a reporter he was delighted his vote increased by 3,000, but it hadn’t been easy. “All the protesters came out and some of the local newspapers in my local area didn’t help me. For three weeks in a row they ran negative stories.”

McGreal says he was referring to his newspaper.

“The reason for that is quite simple: he told me this personally in the run-up to the election, in no uncertain terms. He was furious with the Mayo News, feeling he was under attack from the paper. He would not entertain any arguments to the contrary.”

The Mayo News did not take kindly to being 'essentially accused of having an agenda against the Minister and his party in the run-up to the election'

Back at the count centre, while his own results were “fantastic”, “we had the national media and the local media and everyone against this government since Christmas. They never stopped on the government and never recognised what we had done but finding fault in relation to what we hadn’t done.”

Not only that but: “I never heard one positive bit of stuff about what is being delivered in every corner of this county.”

The Mayo News did not take kindly to being “essentially accused of having an agenda against the Minister and his party in the run-up to the election”. They produced the stats to prove their point. Ringo got more than his fair share of coverage, much of it praising his work for the country and recognising his achievements.

“But the Minister does appear to take any criticism of the Government quite personally.” The newspaper will not apologise for demanding fair play for Mayo and the west.

“Maybe this part of Michael Ring – the siege mentality, the relentless thirst to deliver for his constituents, to prove himself – is part of what makes him so good at what he does well,” writes McGreal of “one of the best politicians Mayo has ever had”.

Just don’t mess with the Mayo News, Michael.

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