Miriam Lord’s Week: Burton only Minister to tend to her roots

Labour's woes, rise of the rebel alliance and hacks in for a kicking

Lucinda Creighton and her exiled chums were treated to tea and biscuits by their fellow party members.

Lucinda Creighton and her exiled chums were treated to tea and biscuits by their fellow party members.


Is the Labour Party a grassroots movement?

When the top brass can’t be bothered muddying their city shoes at the Ploughing Championships in Laois, it’s time to wonder.

As the junior Coalition partner opted once again to ignore this three-day national event, there was strong criticism of the decision at the parliamentary party meeting on Tuesday.

Labour likes to dust down and fly the starry plough on ceremonial occasions, but it seems that’s where the association ends.

“It’s a huge error of judgment and an irresponsible move,” says Laois-based Senator John Whelan, who was the sole party flag-bearer for most of the three days. “Have they lost touch with their roots?”

Hordes of politicians descended on the Carter family farm at Ratheniska this week and put themselves about. Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin took stands and plenty of people called in for a look. Enda Kenny, Micheál Martin and Gerry Adams made themselves conspicuous while Fine Gael ministers and Opposition spokespeople busily worked the showgrounds.

But, for the third year on the trot, there was no sign of Labour. They haven’t graced the ploughing since getting into Government.

It’s not that their deep-thinkers in Dublin are unaware of what happens outside their bailiwick. A number of deputies and senators, particularly the rural-based ones, urged the party last year to have a presence at this major agricultural, commercial and leisure event. The attendance figures are huge.

But despite promises, nothing was done.

At Labour’s think-in earlier this month, the importance of engaging with the public at the ploughing, which attracts a wide cross-section of Irish society, was stressed again.

The event was already in full swing when Tuesday’s parliamentary party meeting took place in Leinster House. It was held at an earlier time than usual because the Tánaiste was due to fly to New York for the UN general assembly.

But not before he heard furious contributions from members about this year’s no-show in Ratheniska. A party official said it would have cost €10,000 to rent a stand, which was too much.

While Eamon Gilmore was en route to America, a press release went out informing the media that deputy leader Joan Burton would be at the ploughing the following day. Tellingly, that statement wasn’t issued by headquarters but came from her Department of Social Protection.

Burton, who spent a long time touring the showgrounds during her high-profile visit, got a very warm reception from the crowd. She was accompanied by deputies Michael McCarthy from Cork, Arthur Spring from Kerry and Michael McNamara from Clare. These men wouldn’t be exactly enamoured of the party’s concentration on election prospects in Dublin.

On Thursday, a furious Senator Whelan said that apart from Burton’s welcome arrival, the only other Labour representatives who turned up were his colleague Denis Landy – a Senator based in Tipperary, where the party was founded – and Mountmellick councillor Lisa Delaney.

“People kept asking, ‘Where’s the Labour stand?’ All I had was brochures I got printed up myself. We hadn’t as much as a biro to hand out.”

He pointed out that Gilmore is Minister for Trade, as well as Foreign Affairs. As President Michael D Higgins pointed out at the official opening on Tuesday, the agri-business sector is worth more than €9 billion to the Irish economy.

“But no show from the Minister for Trade. And where was our Labour Minister for Energy and Natural Resources? Or our Minister for Innovation?” asked Whelan.

“If I was dropping below 10 per cent in the opinion polls and at 15 per cent personally, I wouldn’t be going to New York for five days.”

It was also noted by worried party members this week that the Taoiseach and two Fine Gael ministers graced the platform at a major jobs announcement by Dell in south Dublin’s Cherrywood, in their leader’s constituency. No Labour presence.

POSTSCRIPT: In the piece above, we may have conveyed the impression that the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs with responsibility for Trade is invisible.

Nothing could be further from the truth. We are grateful to those party members who rushed to draw our attention to the sterling efforts Gilmore and his handlers are making to ensure he stays in touch with the people.

Yesterday, they got a message from headquarters urging them “to follow and retweet” as part of a wheeze to get Gilmore’s trip to the Big Apple trending on Twitter.

The Tánaiste took part in a 15-minute “live tweet chat”. Labour faithful back home were encouraged to append the hashtag #gilmoreinNY when posting any Twitter musings.

One delighted contributor tweeted a photo taken in a room in New York. It showed the back of a man’s head and a blurry image of Hashtag Gilmoreinny standing at a podium. “Hanging out at the Irish consulate with an Tainiste (sic) Eamon Gilmore” was the message.

The “chat” was crushingly dull stuff, almost impossible to follow and the replies to questions came, not from the Gilmoreinny, but from the Irish Foreign Ministry

Still. Hashtag Gilmoreinny trended in Dublin for a while. Headquarters will be ecstatic.

Although one suspects the foot soldiers back in Ireland would have been happier if Tánaiste Gilmoreinny took to hanging out a little closer to home.

Stand by for a major bounce in the polls.

Rebel Alliance members not suffering in silence

The Rebel Alliance (RA) rolled into Ratheniska on Wednesday and caused quite a stir in the Fine Gael tent. Lucinda Creighton and her exiled chums were treated to tea and biscuits by their fellow party members (they’re only estranged from the parliamentary wing) and everything was very pleasant.

Lucinda arrived with her husband, Senator Paul Bradford, and the fresh-faced Terence Flanagan from Dublin North-East.

One seasoned Blueshirt ploughman witnessed the scene when they arrived in a Mayo-registered Jeep: “Bradford was driving, Lucinda was sitting like a queen on the passenger side and young Terence, at his first ploughing, was in the baby seat in the back.”

And speaking of seats, the Dáil introduced revised seating arrangements for voting this week to cover those Fine Gael and Labour TDs who have become detached from the mother ship.

Lucinda Creighton finds herself sandwiched between former Labour deputies Patrick Nulty and Róisín Shortall. Peter Mathews is secure between Lucinda and Billy Timmins. But Billy, and the aforementioned young Terence, are separated by former Labour chairman, Colm Keaveney.

We hope they don’t fret.

Meanwhile, all sorts of manoeuvres are going on between the various Independents. It has not gone unnoticed by some that if the large group of refugees from the Government side were to join the existing Technical Group, they would have the numbers to form the main Opposition.

But such a move seems unlikely under the rules of the House, despite what Enda Kenny seemed to think when he told the RA to hook up with the Technical Group if they wanted more speaking time.

As it is, the Government hasn’t lost any time as a result of the Ceann Comhairle’s decision to allow some speaking rights to the growing band of unaligned Independents. That time has been taken from the Opposition.

”We’re bulling over the fact that the Taoiseach has thrown it over to us to find time for them,” says the Technical Group’s Finian McGrath. “Lucinda’s new alliance can have their row with the Government over speaking rights, but they’re not going to diminish us in the process. As a group, we all feel very strong about this.”

The exiles, by the way, have not ruled out going to court to seek speaking rights.

Hacks and pols in for a kicking

Details of the sporting event of the year will not be announced by the FAI’s John Delaney in the Aviva Stadium this Tuesday. But he will be launching the ESB charity challenge – a bottom-of-the-barrel charity soccer clash between politicians and news journalists. A number of “celebrity” players and sports stars are also lined up.

Sports minister Leo Varadkar is lending his support (although we’re not sure if this refers to his blessing or elasticated bandages) and former Irish international international, Ray Houghton, is rumoured to be mentoring the politicians. Good luck with that, Ray.

Comedian Oliver Callan will be hard-pressed to match the laughs provided by the footballers – he’s one of the performers at the after-match show.

The finely honed politicians are managed by Labour senator and midfield dynamo, John Gilroy. “The average age of the team in years is the same as the average girth of the players” he tells us.

Jerseys are on the way from Umbro. “I’ve ordered them all in extra-large and maternity size. And that’s just for the men.”

Twinkle-toed Juno McEnroe of the Irish Examiner is in charge of a team of print and broadcasting luminaries. They hope to raise €50,000 for Concern and Temple Street Children’s Hospital. The game is on in the Aviva on Friday, October 25th.

Canadian club has uncanny parallels here

What was Lloyd Robertson, one of the most famous newsmen in Canada doing in Leinster House recently?

The veteran broadcaster is a legend in Canadian broadcasting – think the Dan Rather of North America.

For many years he was the chief news anchorman for the Canadian CTV network.

He now co-hosts CTV’s weekly current affairs magazine programme, W5, which is considered Canada’s equivalent of the USA’s 60 Minutes series.

(They like their numbers and letters across the Atlantic.)

The silver-haired and chiselled Robertson (pictured) flew to Dublin with a large production crew to do a special programme on the Seanad referendum.

It will be aired across Canada after the result.

Among the politicians he interviewed in Leinster House were Fine Gael’s Regina Doherty and Independent Senator, Feargal Quinn.

One might wonder why the fate of such Irish political luminaries as Terry Leyden and Fidelma Healy-Eames is of such great interest in the land of the Maple Leaf.

It turns out that Canada, which has a bicameral system along the lines of Westminster, is in the throes of a heated national debate about the future of their senate.

It’s all down to a major expenses scandal involving a number of senators.

The story – with uncanny parallels to controversies involving former Seanad members – involves members who represent far-flung regions of Canada claiming travel expenses for huge round trips to parliament while maintaining their primary homes in the capital.

Writing this week in the Canada Post, columnist Kelly McParland described the Senate expenses scandal as “that great, flowing, never-ebbing source of ugly revelations about life in Canada’s anachronistic, unelected ‘upper’ house of parliament”.

His lot sounds even worse than ours.

And it’s why the venerable Lloyd Robertson and crew made their special trip to Kildare Street.

Canada awaits.