Miriam Lord’s Week: Leo’s Chinese lantern sparks security alert at Leinster House

Luckily, Tánaiste was in Chile for Paddy’s Day when suspicious package arrived

On a sleepy Friday afternoon three weeks ago, with the Dáil and Seanad in recess and those Ministers still in the whole of their health embarking on St Patrick's week travels, a suspect package addressed to Leo Varadkar sparked a security alert in Government Buildings.

It was deemed serious enough to force a 40-minute closure of Merrion Street while the bomb squad reportedly entered the premises. Gardaí rushed to the scene and closed off the street from Merrion Square as far as the junction with Baggot Street. While staff were not evacuated, the front gates were locked and staff were sent an email asking them to leave via the back entrance.

The Irish Daily Mail reported that the package was marked as coming from China and gardaí were called after it was X-rayed at Government Buildings. A subsequent examination revealed the contents did not contain any dangerous items or substances.

At the time, the Government press office refused to comment on the report as it “does not comment on security matters” while the Garda press office told journalist Louise Burne: “Gardaí were alerted in relation to concerns regarding the contents of a package at Government Buildings. Following a preliminary examination, no further action was necessary.”

They did not confirm reports that the bomb squad was called. The intended recipient of the suspicious package was in no danger one way or the other. The Tánaiste was on St Patrick’s Day duty in Chile.

The Tánaiste is perhaps already thinking about the refurb when he takes over from Micheál Martin as taoiseach at the end of the year

Since the incident, we hear there is much amusement around Government Buildings about Leo’s mysterious parcel from the Orient which set off alarm bells on the security front when what appeared to be electrical components and wires showed up in the X-ray machine.

Turns out the package contained a new lamp. A very nice lamp, apparently.

We have been unable to ascertain if the Tánaiste purchased it for his Merrion Street office (perhaps already thinking about the refurb when he takes over from Micheál Martin as taoiseach at the end of the year) or for the newly purchased gaff in Portobello.

As Tennyson might have written: In the spring, a youngish man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of lovely lights . . .

Pinch of salt for Stephen Donnelly’s health report

Everything is going great guns in the health service. We’ll be world-beating and world leaders in no time, if Stephen Donnelly’s telephone address to the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party this week is anything to go by.

In the course of a comprehensive overview of developments in his department and the many projects he is working on, the Minister for Health treated lowly deputies and Senators to a glowing progress report. He also wrested credit for the pioneering but ill-fated Mother and Child Scheme in the late 1940s from Dr Noel Browne and gave it all to Fianna Fáil.

We understand some TDs had large pinches of salt at hand while listening to the Minister’s rundown of the sterling efforts under way and the many difficult issues which still need to be resolved. But rest assured, their man is toiling “relentlessly”, particularly in the area of waiting lists, diagnostics and consultant recruitment.

While he has been doing "huge, huge" work, he also praised Ministers of State Mary Butler and Anne Rabbitte for also "doing incredible work" in the areas of mental health and disability. They, of course, are members of Fianna Fáil, but he graciously remembered the other junior minister, the one who bats for Fine Gael. "A very good guy, Frank Feighan", apparently.

In the course of parping the ministerial trumpet, Stephen, who jumped ship from the Social Democrats to Fianna Fáil in 2017, offered some historical perspective to his audience of dyed-in-the-wool Soldiers of Destiny.

Over the years, despite challenges, he said the party made huge differences to the quality of Irish healthcare, citing the decade starting from 1997, when infant mortality fell and the nursing degree and the smoking ban was introduced.

He then moved on to list the very many achievements under his own watch. While there is much unfinished business and some serious challenges to address, there is “a lot to be proud of in terms of the national effort”, he said.

However, the really, really important launch this year is the women’s healthcare plan. The Minister told his enraptured listeners that this plan is “probably the biggest single evolution of women’s healthcare since the mother and baby [sic] scheme”.

And that is a scheme, he told colleagues, “which Noel Browne gets the credit for” when actually the previous Fianna Fáil government drafted the Health Act. He said it wasn’t even implemented by Browne’s inter-party administration, without explaining the crucial reasons why. The Fianna Fáil government which came next implemented it, he crowed.

Hardly a feather in the cap as the Minister omitted that important technical bit about it being considerably watered down as a result of the same government bowing to clerical pressure.

Anyway, in the area of women’s health, he is doing “a really big push”.

Super Doolan moves on

Teresa Doolan, the first woman to hold the prestigious position of superintendent of Leinster House, is moving on to pastures fresh after two years in the post and taking up a new job within the Department of Justice.

Clerk of the Dáil and head of the Houses of the Oireachtas Service, Peter Finnegan, pays tribute to her in his latest staff bulletin.

“Teresa has been a brilliant addition to our team; a calm, efficient and highly effective superintendent who brought a new outlook to the position. We are sad to see her leave us and her expertise will be greatly missed,” he writes, adding that it was “an immense pleasure” to work with her and wishing her every success in her new role.

The civil servant was formerly Enda Kenny’s private secretary when he was taoiseach, and she transferred to the Oireachtas team in Leinster House from the human resources unit in the Department of the Taoiseach.

As head of the superintendent’s unit, Doolan was in charge of all security functions relating to the Dáil and Seanad, as well as the infrastructure and accommodation needs of TDs and Senators. She made a break with tradition on her first day in the job – traditionally the preserve of ex-army officers – when asking ushers to call her Teresa instead of using the conventional and formal “superintendent”.

There is talk in Leinster House that her predecessor, Paul Conway, who moved to Brussels as the Oireachtas representative at the European Parliament, may be drafted in as a temporary replacement while Derek Dignam, head of communications and international relations, has also been mentioned in dispatches.

Teresa's departure means that two key security positions in Leinster House are now worryingly vacant. John Flaherty, former stalwart of the Oireachtas Golf Society whose evidence to the Golfgate court case in Galway in January was praised by Judge Mary Fahy, finished up as captain of the guard in 2020.

Dáil’s drama kings and queens

It should come as no surprise to hear that politicians in Leinster House were broadly in favour this week of Norma Foley’s plan to introduce theatre, film and drama studies to the Leaving Cert syllabus, given the amount of drama queens and old hams populating the benches on all sides.

Former Fianna Fáil TD turned disaffected Independent Marc MacSharry was a leading light in Sligo amateur dramatic circles before scaling new theatrical heights in Kildare Street, while Fine Gael junior minister Hildegarde Naughton is a classically trained soprano; her Eliza Doolittle and Calamity Jane are still fondly remembered in Galway Musical Society circles.

Malcolm's credits include the role of Juan Perón in Evita, Major General Stanley in The Pirates of Penzance and the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz

Another paid-up member of the luvvie brigade is Wexford-based Fianna Fáil Senator Malcolm Byrne, who is treading the boards next week in Gorey Musical Society's production of The Sound of Music. The show opens with a Sunday matinee tomorrow and will run nightly until Saturday's two-show finale. Tickets are selling fast, with limited availability for some shows. Malcolm's credits include the role of Juan Perón in Evita, Major General Stanley in The Pirates of Penzance and the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz.

He is playing Admiral Von Schreiber (who forces Captain Von Trapp back into the Navy) in this week’s show. A minor role, which leaves him free to join the chorus for the waltzing scenes.

Meanwhile, speaking of Senators, we must congratulate Tom Clonan for triumphing in the Seanad byelection and taking Ivana Bacik's vacant Trinity seat after what turned into a nailbiting contest in the final counts. The former Army captain, who turned whistleblower following his research into sex abuse in the Defence Forces, is a disability campaigner and a well-known commentator on defence and security matters.

Members of the Upper House are now wondering how their colleague on the Labour panel, lance corporal Gerard Craughwell (special speechifying ops), will cope with not being the Seanad's only authority on national security and soldiering. Obviously, he'll still be the leading one. And he can show young Clonan the ropes.

Plurilingual praise

Malcolm's party colleague and namesake Thomas Byrne, the Minister of State for European Affairs, was looking very pleased with himself on Tuesday. There were two reasons: he wasn't wearing his arm in a sling anymore following an unfortunate funeral-related injury; and he had just returned from a conference organised by the French embassy where he spoke in four languages: English, Irish, French and Italian.

The ambassador, His Excellency Vincent Guérend, was so impressed he tweeted thanks to the Minister in the same four languages for his commitment to “plurilingualism, a key driver of the EU citizenship”.

Thomas addressed the conference on the theme of “Inspiring plurilingualism: stakes and perspectives in Europe”.

Is Byrne a plurilinguist? We’re not sure, as he had a script, but we imagine if any TD were to call him one in the Dáil the Ceann Comhairle might boot them out for inappropriate use of language.

As for the aforementioned sling, the TD for Meath East confessed to us that he tripped in the church while on his way to extend his condolences to a constituent and suffered a slight fracture to his arm. Politics is a dangerous profession.