Miriam Lord’s Week: Stephen Donnelly returns from UAE to a nasty surprise

Backslapping Fine Gael Senator puts his foot in it while Russia gets lost in the boogie

Stephen Donnelly was back in the Dáil this week following his trip to Dubai with Civil Service starlet Robert Watt, who is worth every penny of his ever-expanding salary (€294,920 and counting) to grateful Opposition TDs looking to embarrass the Government.

When the Minister for Health and his secretary general were away doing important “economic leverage” stuff at a medical expo in the UAE, TDs back in the House complained about having to deal with Ministers of State yet again instead of the main man.

Among those objecting was Catherine Connolly, who said the Minister's absence was not only "entirely unacceptable" but that the junior ministers in his department (Mary Butler, Frank Feighan and Anne Rabbitte) appeared to be "totally overworked".

However on Wednesday, Butler was able to confirm to Michael McNamara that Donnelly had returned.


“That’s good to know,” said McNamara, unconvincingly.

"The audacity of Mr Watt and indeed the Minister to go out to Abu Dhabi or wherever looking at best practice out there. In this time of Covid, look, that speaks for itself about how out of touch they are," fulminated Mattie McGrath.

And indeed, Stephen D was back in Dublin and no doubt feeling chipper after a week immersed in the Expo’s health and wellness week. Happy days. Not out of the woods yet but the Covid restrictions have been lifted.

Maybe now the Minister might be able to relax just a little in the Department of Health’s modern headquarters on Miesian Plaza on Baggot Street? It’s been crazy since he took over the job.

But wait. What’s this?

On Wednesday, an internal email went out to all staff headed “Shower Facilities Legionnaires Detection – Miesian Plaza”. It said that following consultation with the landlord and the OPW, scheduled testing of facilities on the lower ground floor “has detected the presence of Legionnaires bacteria in the shower areas”.

As a result, the shower facilities will remain closed to staff until all required measures have been completed “all the way back to the storage tanks”. A decision will be taken to reopen following further tests and corporate services will ensure staff are kept informed of progress.

“All other facilities, including drinking water remain unaffected.”

Legionnaires disease. You couldn’t make it up.

Yes sir, I can boogie

A flurry of activity between representatives of the Irish media and a senior embassy official narrowly averted a disco inferno between Ireland and Russia this week. Emails flew during a tense 25-minute exchange after Russia's ambassador to Ireland, Yuriy Filatov, unleashed Earth, Wind and Fire on a Government-commissioned report for attempting to portray his country as a bogeyman and a threat to Irish security.

4.24pm: Dublin-based press attache Nikita Isakin sends media outlets a short comment by the ambassador on the recently published report of the Commission on the Defence Forces. It includes the passage: "While the subject of the report is clearly an internal matter for Ireland, one cannot but note an attempt by the commission to substantiate its conclusions with a notion of a threat, allegedly posed by Russia to the security of Ireland. Any unbiased observer would be hard put to find any evidence of such a 'threat'. Attempts to portray Russia as a boogie are misplaced and regrettable."

4.38pm: Simon Carswell, Public Affairs Editor of The Irish Times, boogies on up with a rapid response to Nikita seeking clarification for himself and his colleagues on the sentence "attempts to portray Russia as a boogie are misplaced and regrettable." Carswell, wearing his polyester zip-up bell-bottomed jumpsuit, wonders: "In your statement, does the Ambassador mean "bogeyman" rather than "boogie", which is a style of blues played on the piano with a strong, fast beat or a type of dance to pop or rock music?"

4.45pm: Neil Michael of the Irish Examiner boogies on down in his sequined platforms. "Hi – we've gone with boogeyman. Is that OK there Nikita?" he emails, explaining he is interpreting the boogie reference as the ambassador to Ireland saying Russia is not the "boogeyman" as portrayed by "biased" people. "That is what you meant isn't it?"

4.49pm: Nikita hits the floor again. He remains firmly of the view that You Can't Stop the Boogie. Which, of course, everyone knows is true. You can't. The Russian attache doubles down on the boogie writing: "I believe (and am sure) that in this case this is a short version of the word boogieman (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bogeyman), i.e. "scarecrow". Best regards"

So there you have it. A victory for diplomacy in the battle of Boogie Wonderland. Wars have started for less.

As the saying goes: don’t teach your babushka to suck eggs.

Fine Gael’s Conway fails to read the room

As we were away in Galway last week covering the trial of the century, we didn't hear about a little incident in the Oireachtas Members' Restaurant which had members of the Fine Gael parliamentary party sniggering well into this week.

Leinster House is slowly getting back to normal and the TDs and Senators are delighted to have use of the formal restaurant again. In the first week of its full opening, groups of politicians from all sides enjoyed shooting the breeze around the starched white linen, away from all the nosey journalists. We hear Tánaiste and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar was having a Wednesday night bite to eat with some of his senior team including Helen McEntee, Paschal Donohoe, Simon Harris, Simon Coveney and Patrick O'Donovan when the affable Senator from Clare, Martin Conway, ambled into the restaurant.

Martin, who is the first visually impaired member of the Oireachtas, saw Harris as he made his way around the tables.

He beetled over and gave him a hearty greeting, slapping him on the back and loudly declaring: “There’s the next leader of the party!”

There’s a bit of an awkward silence. Then Senator Conway glances across and sees a stony-faced Varadkar staring back at him. Harris doesn’t know where to look. The others are saying nothing.

Martin makes a brave attempt at chit-chat (not reciprocated) before beating a hasty retreat.

‘Champagne party’ scandal deepens

It’s the question to which nobody has got a satisfactory answer yet: what exactly were they drinking in the Department of Foreign Affairs on that night? Though widely reported as a “champagne party”, DFA gossip has suggested that the glasses may have been filled with rather more humble prosecco.

Certainly, though some slightly tipsy accounts have identified the tipple as Moet et Chandon champagne, the bottles in the infamous picture do appear to be from that particular house.

This week Simon Coveney and his secretary general Joe Hackett appeared at the foreign affairs committee to answer questions about the episode. It was a more restrained and humble Coveney who appeared and Hackett – only appointed last year and regarded as very young for the role – did much of the talking.

It was a polished performance – suitably contrite but strong in his defence of the department, polite and helpful to the committee while standing by the conclusions of his report. His Minister has good cause to be thankful for his cool response to the controversy, which has now fizzled out.

But one aspect of the affair unresolved despite the best efforts of Solidarity/People Before Prosecco's Paul Murphy: what made the corks go pop? Hackett's report specifies only "sparkling wine".

Murphy asked the burning question: “What exactly were you drinking?”

Hackett hesitated. “Do I have to answer that?”

He did. “ . . It . . . It was sparkling wine,” stuttered the Iveagh House mandarin.

Meanwhile, a furiously googling Fianna Fáil member of the committee says he has solved the mystery and the bottles in the photo are . . . Marks and Spencer Prosecco. Could be a resigning matter yet. The Minister must be mortified. If word gets around the yacht club he won't be able to show his face in the Royal Cork.