Miriam Lord’s week: Rash response as Mary Lou gets under Leo’s skin

Taoiseach’s ill-considered barbs in Dáil insufficient evidence for finding of sexism

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Sinn Fein's Deputy Leader Mary Lou McDonald clashed in the Dail over the NI Executive. Video: Oireachtas TV


Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. Leo Varadkar’s smart-assed opening salvo to Mary Lou McDonald at Leaders’ Questions in the Dáil this week was silly and unnecessary. Sneering at her for arriving prepared with a well-scripted question and delivering it with her usual aplomb was pointless and hypocritical.

He did it for a reason. And that reason was not misogyny.

The Taoiseach and his colleagues are no strangers to a script either. Mary Lou was doing her job and absolutely on message for Sinn Féin. Content aside, that’s what she does, and she does it rather well.

So when Leo sarcastically complimented her on “the flawless delivery” of her script – “Pauses, intonation and everything was absolutely perfect as always” – that old Irish saying sprang to mind: “Aithníonn ciaróg ciaróg eile.” It takes one to know one.

Fine Gael, along with its supply-and-confidence partners in Fianna Fáil, are irritated by Sinn Féin’s disciplined communications operation, where its people never go off message and stick rigidly and vociferously to the party line, no matter what arguments are advanced to the contrary. They say the party routinely peddles half-baked theories and populist untruths as gospel while shouting down anyone who disagrees with them.

And the most galling aspect is that they are extremely good at the whole communications thing.

Now that Varadkar has taken over as leader he has decided to take on Sinn Féin and what he sees as its deeply cynical approach to politics. Fine Gael is fully behind him, rank-and-file TDs having long felt the party wasn’t being sufficiently challenged.

Fair enough.

Shout more loudly

Now when Sinn Féin shout, it looks like the others are determined to shout louder. That’s the rough and tumble of politics.

In the absence of Gerry Adams, it was Mary Lou in the hot seat on Wednesday. Would Varadkar have made the same smug remark to Adams? He wouldn’t, accuse some, because Adams is a man. He wouldn’t, one suspects, because “flawless” is not a word which springs to mind when considering the Sinn Féin leader’s Dáil performances. As for “absolutely perfect” delivery and use of “pauses, intonation and everything”, well, that wouldn’t be Gerry either.

But had polished communicators Pearse Doherty or Eoin O’Broin, for example, been standing in at Leaders’ Questions, it’s just as likely the Taoiseach would have thrown out his ill-considered barb. Although – as was the case with Bertie Ahern and Joe Higgins – Mary Lou seems to have a particular knack for getting under his skin.

Is Varadkar sexist? Not on the evidence of one Dáil session, when three of his questioners happened to be female. Although his Cabinet appointments set a worrying precedent. But these are early days. It’s interesting to see a more robust approach and a greater sense of conviction from this Taoiseach, even if he struck the wrong tone on Wednesday. But first impressions can create lasting impressions.

Leo might have a chew on that while he gets ready for his close-up on his next video message. This week’s, by the way, was tastefully recorded on board the Government jet as he was about to fly to Estonia. He was almost as flawless as Mary Lou.

Murphy feted for salving Donnybrook’s shame

The oppressed peoples from that marginalised Fine Gael ghetto in Dublin Bay South known as Donnybrook were en fete on Thursday night. There was a big celebration in the Hampton Court Hotel in honour of local boy Eoghan Murphy, who has distinguished the constituency by becoming its first Fine Gael Government Minister since the Great Garret himself.

It’s hard to believe that the party in Dublin Bay South, and Dublin 4 in particular, hasn’t had a minister to call its own since former taoiseach Dr FitzGerald was their darling.

Thankfully, young Eoghan, who is Minister for Housing, has righted that grievous wrong and ended decades of shame for Donnybrook and surrounding enclaves. The event was meant to be a surprise. Murphy would attend this local party gathering only to discover he was the guest of honour, with speeches and gifts to boot.

However, politicians don’t really like surprises, and so, in the spirit of friendship and political collegiality, Murphy’s constituency rival Kate O’Connell let the cat out of the bag a couple of days in advance. We hear Eoghan was disgusted. He loves surprises.

So on the night, with his mammy and all the family and greater Fine Gael family present, the Minister showed he isn’t the only Murphy sibling with a talent for acting (his brother is actor Killian Scott, still fondly remembered as the tragic Tommy in Love/Hate). But he doesn’t blame Kate for ruining his surprise. That’s not the Dublin Bay South way.

Varadkar charm on menu at Fine Gael dinners

The Taoiseach, who is keenly aware he didn’t win the party leadership election with a landslide of support, is continuing his assiduous cultivation of Fine Gael colleagues. He has been attending constituency functions and local events around the country, much to the gratification of backbench TDs and grassroots members.

This week, he held two get-togethers in Government Buildings. The first was an intimate dinner with the party’s “rural” Ministers. Leo must have had the bucolic bit between his teeth following his visit to the National Ploughing Championships and keen to have a chat about the particular issues facing his non-urban brethren.

“It was great crack. Beef or chicken,” said one of the Ministers. “We all spoke at great length. Thoroughly enjoyable.”

Diners included Michael Creed, Cork North-West (Agriculture), Michael Ring, Mayo (Rural and Community Development), Denis Naughten, Roscommon-Galway, (Communications, Climate Action and Environment), Heather Humphreys, Cavan-Monaghan (Culture, Heritage and Gaeltacht), Simon Harris, Wicklow (Health) and Charlie Flanagan, Laois (Justice and Equality).

The second charm offensive was much bigger with the Taoiseach entertaining more than 80 former Fine Gael TDs and senators, including former party leaders Alan Dukes and John Bruton, Oireachtas members who lost their seats at the last election and a host of Fine Gael blasts from the past. “Leo gave a good speech,” said a guest. “He made a point of apologising for how the party treated its former TDs and senators in the past and had a special mention for the people who didn’t make it back to Leinster House this year. It went down very well.”

Reminder of home for Rugby World Cup bid team

The Irish squad in London this week to make Ireland’s case for hosting the Rugby World Cup in 2023 got a little reminder that their bid has as much to do with politics as it does with business and sport.

The team, which has Brian O’Driscoll as its brand ambassador and is chaired by former tánaiste, Labour leader and Irish international Dick Spring, was joined by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Sport Shane Ross.

And very smart they all looked in their matching green ties. They pitched against France and South Africa and early indications are that their presentation was very well received. A room was set aside for the delegation in the Royal Garden Hotel in South Kensington. Some of the group wondered if it was an omen. They were billeted in “Bertie’s Bar”.

Ross appointed as Baron Strokestown

Court Circular.

The Government is graciously pleased to announce the appointment of the Lord Shane Peter Nathaniel Ross, aka Winston Churchtown of Dublin-Rathdown (Independent Alliance) and formerly Gatekeeper of the High Order of New Politics (Anti-Cronyism), to be the new Baron Strokestown of Sindo and Brass Neck.

The baron, who resides at Stepaside Manor in the townland of Upper Shameless and Sweetheart Deal, carried out a public engagement on Wednesday in the county of Galway accompanied by Mr Seán Canney (Order of the Dog House) when he opened the Tuam-Gort motorway.

Weather conditions were described as “distinctly frosty” following Mr Canney’s public announcement he was going to vote against Baron Strokestown’s drink-driving Bill. Following his announcement, Winston Churchtown/Strokestown and his fellow members of the Independent Alliance held an emergency meeting. Loyal retainers Finian McGrath and John Halligan and Kevin “Boxer” Moran (Order of the Junior Ministries) loudly berated Canney for breaking ranks while Winston remained silent as a mark of his displeasure. Hence the chilly turn in the weather on Wednesday morning. That’s the lower orders for you, Winston.

Daly launches appeal to locate old Leo

There was a touching interlude between the Taoiseach and Clare Daly at Leaders’ Questions in the Dáil after the Mary Lou episode. This pair have history.

Clare and Leo might not share the same politics, but the socialist TD has a lot of time for the Taoiseach, or at least, she used to. But is their beautiful friendship about to end?

Three years ago, during a debate on the Airports Bill, Daly noted that Varadkar was taking his last questions as minister for transport. “I will be sorry, because while I may not agree with any of your policies, the way in which you conduct yourself and the competence of your department and your handling of it has been impressive. From that point of view, I will be sorry to see you lose the brief.”

Leo was chuffed. “This is like praise from Caesar,” he smiled, thanking Clare for her “kind and gracious” words.

Roll on to this year, when newly the installed Taoiseach announced his Cabinet. “Utterly gobsmacked and underwhelmed” declared the Independent deputy for Fingal. She found this all the more disappointing as he had shown “backbone” and “balls” on a number of issues and “wasn’t afraid to stand out from the crowd”.

Mars bar and can of Coke

But he had done well for himself, all the same. Clare remembered the days back on Fingal County Council when the young Leo was “a larger person than you are now, attending late at meetings with a Mars bar and a can of Coke”.

So while other TDs might have been saying he didn’t distinguish himself in his various ministries “as far as I am concerned you did a good job in transport”. Not only that, but he “responded well” on matters of health and also stepped up to the mark when, along with Mick Wallace, she raised the issue of Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe. “We respect you but that doesn’t mean we’re going to spare you.”

Sadly, it seems the magic might be waning. Clare was not impressed this week when she asked him about reforming the policing system and protecting Garda whistleblowers. “When you were a mere Cabinet minister, twice you distinguished yourself on policing issues, and we were never shy at recognising this . . . Now that you’re not one of the herd anymore but you’re actually the leader of the pack, your tone and demeanour has changed on this issue – and I say that, not lightly, but with some cause of concern, because that hasn’t been the way you’ve conducted yourself before now, and it would be regrettable if you were to go down that road.”

She had the Taoiseach’s undivided attention at this point.

“I’m genuinely appealing to the old you, when you were a minister – go back and look at these cases.”

Leo assured Clare he isn’t discounting the seriousness of the whistleblowers’ allegations, but that people are entitled to their good name and due process and it cannot be assumed all the allegations are true. “I assure you that, if I have anything to do with them, they will be taken seriously.” he promised. “I am very committed to driving long-overdue Garda reform.” We’re all rooting for a happy ending.