Timing is everything.
An email arrives on Friday afternoon from the office of Pippa Hackett, Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, headed: "Minister Hackett encourages the support of local producers by purchasing a real Irish Christmas Tree this season."
It made us feel all Christmassy, not least because the tinsel was coming out in Leinster House at that very moment with trees going up at strategic points around the complex.
"Purchase a real Irish Christmas tree this season" was Pippa's excellent message. "This supports local producers who have spent seven to 10 years of dedicated work to produce a good-quality Christmas tree. Irish growers produce around 650,000 Christmas trees each year with 450,000 sold at home and about 200,000 exported abroad, mainly to the UK, France and Germany. The industry contributes €25 million to the Irish economy."
Well said, Pippa.
The Irish forestry sector is not in a good place right now. Members of the newly-formed Social, Economic, Environmental Forestry Association protested outside the gates of Leinster House recently, claiming that delays and backlogs in issuing forestry licences for felling, thinning, replanting and access to forests have caused a major crisis in the industry.
At least the Minister’s message should bring some solace.
"Whether it is buying a Christmas tree from your local retailer or going to a farm to pick out your Christmas tree, it is an experience that marks the beginning of the season for many families," she says. Supporting local sustainable growers in rural Ireland is "more environmentally friendly, has a lower carbon footprint than an artificial tree and enhances the Christmas experience".
Here's the educational bit: "There are different types of Irish-grown Christmas trees. The Nordmann Fir (Abies nordmanniana) is currently the most popular species. It has glossy, rich green foliage and soft, non-shed needles. If you'd like a bluer foliage the Noble Fir (Abies procera/Abies nobilis) is also a popular non-shed needle choice tree. The traditional Christmas Tree is the Norway Spruce (Picea abies)."
Pippa says to make sure to place cut Christmas trees in a water stand to reduce needle loss.
We’d advise her to cover her eyes the next time she enters Leinster House.
The sight of the huge, perfectly decorated Christmas trees might upset her. She might also steer clear of Leinster House 2000 – the modern wing of the complex – for the same reason.
Because all the trees inside Leinster House are artificial.
An Oireachtas spokesperson tells us that this not a new development. "Real trees are a fire risk and since the restoration of Georgian Leinster House about three years ago we have rented artificial trees for indoors."
Fianna Fáil's Jackie Cahill chairs the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture and the Marine and has held numerous meetings to discuss the forestry crisis. He says he is "very disappointed" that the festive trees in our national parliament are plastic as "we should be leading by example by promoting our struggling forestry industry".
However he accepts the decision was taken on safety grounds.
Everyone knew this was a very serious matter when Gerard Craughwell, most unusually, felt it was time to stop talking
Senators, meanwhile, who are holding a two-hour debate on Tuesday on their cross-party motion calling on the Government “to consistently and strongly speak out against ongoing and sustained breaches of fundamental human rights in the People’s Republic of China” had only one question to ask about the aforementioned trees.
"Are they from China or Taiwan?"
Senators show solidarity with secretarial assistants
Senators went on the warpath on Thursday on behalf of their hardworking and badly-paid secretarial assistants (SAs) whose case for a fair wage has been consistently ignored by the well-remunerated mandarins in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DEPR).
There were no dissenting voices in the chamber when one senator declared that the Seanad should effectively go on strike in support of their staffers if the issue is not resolved.
The senators were fired up following a Zoom event held earlier in the day by the SAs to highlight their situation. Some TDs and senators found themselves locked out of the virtual meeting because the 100-person limit for participants was reached soon after it began. The politicians were unanimous in their support of the SAs, whose starting salary is just over €24,000, less than the national living wage.
TDs are entitled to a parliamentary assistant (starting salary almost €42,000) and an SA, while a senator gets one SA.
"We all know that the title 'secretarial assistant' is a misnomer," Sinn Féin's Paul Gavan told the Seanad. "These people do the same jobs as parliamentary assistants but are paid dramatically less."
Meanwhile, the responsibilities of staffers employed by TDs can be often blurred, with workers on half the wage sometimes expected to shoulder more duties than the parliamentary assistants.
“There was a great sense of solidarity at the meeting,” said one deputy afterwards. “We all know that when a death threat comes in, the secretary is the one who receives it. They deserve better.”
There was particular sympathy for the 60 SAs in the Seanad who must do everything from office duties to research work, to the preparation and drafting of legislation. They have been trying for five years to get what they say is equal pay for equal work and their case is heading towards a date with the Workplace Relations Commission unless the department acts first.
When the Upper House convened later in the day, speakers were queuing up to demand justice for their multitasking support staff. Senator Lynn Ruane pointed out that the previous Seanad agreed a cross-party motion to bring change to the pay structure but nothing happened.
“If we can’t introduce quality pay based on experience and expertise, then how can we promote our ideals in a wider sense in terms of society and democracy? We must fix what is happening in-house first.”
Everyone knew this was a very serious matter when Gerard Craughwell, most unusually, felt it was time to stop talking.
“I might be so bold as to suggest that at some stage we would refuse to process legislation while our secretarial assistants are being treated the way they are being treated,” he said. “It’s outrageous. It really is. In any organisation they would be supported.”
Given DEPR’s indifference to the plight of the SAs there is only one thing for it: “I think we should consider whether or not we would be unwilling to process legislation until there’s some action.”
To the barricades!
Finian McGrath sets ambitious goals at Shelbourne FC
The great Leinster House lockout continues for ex-TDs and senators cruelly denied sanctuary in their former stomping ground due to ongoing Covid restrictions. Entry to the building is strictly limited to members, workers and visitors on essential business.
We’ve spotted former Minister of State and Independent Alliance TD Finian McGrath skulking around the car park in recent months, bending a few ears.
"Myself and John Halligan and Shane Ross have been trying to get back into Leinster House for a cup of coffee and a chat but we aren't allowed in," Finian tells us. "We can get into the grounds and maybe meet in the car park but that's about it. I've been told that there's no way we'll be let inside until after Christmas at the very earliest."
Bad news so for the Independent Outdoor Alliance leg of the last government, but Finian’s disappointment was tempered this week with news of his appointment to the board of his beloved Shelbourne Football Club as public affairs and inclusion officer.
All Mick wants for Christmas is a radical alternative, but in the meantime, a decent uptake of raffle tickets will have to do
The former minister state for disability will oversee the establishment of teams for players with special needs, an amputee team and a power chair team. He will also seek to liaise with government and local authorities on the club’s behalf with the goal of making Shelbourne the most inclusive club in Ireland.
Shels aren’t involved in Sunday’s FAI cup final, which is an all-Dublin affair between St Patrick’s Athletic and Bohemians. “I think I’d be slightly biased towards Pat’s,” says Finian.
Never mind, the Bohs are not short of political support either. Paschal Donohoe (Minister for Finance and Phibsborough) is a keen supporter of his local club and a regular at Dalymount Park. He's hoping to make the Aviva for the big match.
Socialist Party raffle to fire up debate about fuel poverty
Winter drawers on, as the Ma used to say when the nights began closing in.
And winter draws are on everywhere in the run up to Christmas. These are your proper type of raffle where the prize might be a turkey, unlike the National Lottery’s version where the raffle is a turkey.
"If you're not in you can't win," says Cork South Central TD Mick Barry, revealing details of this year's eagerly-awaited Socialist Party Xmas Draw.
"24 weeks since the national Lotto was won but we have to have a winner here on Dec 12," trumpets Mick on his Facebook page. "Good windfalls here for Christmas."
First prize is €2,500, second prize is €1,500, third prize is €1,000 and so on. “All funds raised will be used to challenge the system which forces so many people into fuel poverty this winter.”
Deputy Barry told the Dáil this week that Ireland has one of the highest excess winter death rates in Europe and this figure is not just about the cold, it is also about fuel poverty, which particularly hits the old and the poor. He asked the Taoiseach, in the light of rising energy costs, to increase the fuel allowance which is "a miserable €5 a week".
This situation is “just another example of a capitalist system that must be challenged and overcome”.
All Mick wants for Christmas is a radical alternative, but in the meantime, a decent uptake of raffle tickets will have to do.
Tickets are a tenner each and the draw is limited to 2,000 tickets. Contact the Socialist Party. There will be no rollovers.