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Miriam Lord’s Week: Virus surge sees Cabinet isolated in Covid Castle

Elsewhere, we were doing time on Bernard’s watch, and saw some political engagement

From division bells to wedding bells – congratulations to Fianna Fáil TD Christopher O'Sullivan, who has announced his engagement to Dublin-based lawyer Sarah Redmond.

The Cork South-West Deputy and former Cork county mayor popped the question earlier this month during a trip to Glengarriff.

“One of the things I love most about Sarah is that she is one of the funniest people I know. Politics can be a pretty rough game at times and you’ve got to be pretty thick-skinned. But it’s unbelievable to have someone supportive in your corner and Sarah’s definitely that for me,” he said.

The couple haven’t set a date yet, but the location is definitely sorted. “Sarah has fallen in love with west Cork and would really love a west Cork wedding.”

Of all the TDs in Leinster House, wildlife expert O'Sullivan must be the one with the most unusual occupation outside politics – he conducts whale-watching tours. This is an exciting time as Ireland awaits the return of the humpbacks and the start of the whale-watching season, which runs from April to May. No doubt Christopher and Sarah will be scanning the waters for the distinctive dorsal fin of Boomerang, west Cork's answer to Dingle's late, lamented Fungie.

“He’s been sighted for 17 of the last 19 years, so he obviously likes it here,” Christopher tells us. “Boomerang is instantly recognisable because his dorsal fin – the one on his back – is bent over at a right angle.”

In the meantime, the TD is also keeping an eye on comings and goings in Kinsale Marsh, where an Avocet has been pottering about in the shallows for the last few months.

“It’s a terrific creature and an extremely rare visitor to Ireland,” he says. The bird has a long bill which is dramatically upturned at the end.

And speaking of matters of the heart and the course of true love, Christopher O’Sullivan used to go out with Holly Cairns of the Social Democrats. The couple made international headlines in February 2020 when they ended up running against each other on the same general-election ballot.

In the end, they both won a Dáil seat and amicably went their separate ways later in the year.

Bulletin bored

Politicians love nothing more than a good newsletter. Fine Gael emails a political update to its members and supporters every month inviting them to "check out all the latest news" from their favourite party.

It’s not a gripping read.

A recent bulletin opens with a dull message from Tánaiste Leo Varadkar followed by a delightful smorgasbord of contributions from Minister of State Martin Heydon (Visiting our Defence Forces in Lebanon), Senator Emer Currie (Changing the way we work for good) and MEP Seán Kelly (European Union Response to Ukraine crisis).

The piece about the Minister of State’s St Patrick’s Day trip to visit the troops promises not only an account of Martin’s brave morale-boosting excursion but also “amazing images of the visit in the embedded tweet within the article”.

Count us in.

We clicked into the article for “amazing images” of the junior minister embedded in a navy suit, shirt, tie and blue face mask. Talking to a few Irish soldiers. The weather looked very warm. In one of the images, Martin amazingly sported a black padded jacket.

Strong stuff.

But then came the redeeming "Ten Things About" series. And in "this month's unmissable" instalment we learned things we didn't know about . . . Bernard Durkan, the veteran TD for Kildare North who recently mounted a successful crusade against non-performing Lotto balls.

Here’s a few of those things:

People Bernard most admires: Abraham Lincoln and Michael Collins.

Favourite novel: A Stone for Danny Fisher by Harold Robbins.

Favourite musical artist/group: Phil Coulter.

Desert island product must-have: My motorbike!

Three people on your ultimate dinner party guest list: Pat Rabbitte, Barack and Michelle Obama.

And favourite holiday destination? "Not Portlaoise Prison!" replies Bernard, "which is where I previously spent eight weeks as a result of protesting on behalf of the then NFA (National Farmers' Association). This was to protect the right of farmers at the time to be a party to top-level talks with government, similar to the representation of unions and/or other representative organisations."

Bernard Durkan did time in Portlaoise. Never knew that.

In for the long hall

Is it not time for our cosseted Cabinet to abandon Covid Castle and return to Government Buildings for its weekly meeting?

The Taoiseach, Tánaiste and Ministers decamped to Dame Street in the early days of the pandemic for safety reasons, holding Cabinet meetings in the main conference room in Dublin Castle. We are all familiar now with those Tuesday morning images of Coalition leaders barrelling across the cobbles and through the small door in the corner of the courtyard. Journalists, photographers and television camera crews based in and around Leinster House in Kildare Street have become used to the inconvenience of dragging equipment to Dame Street and then hanging around outside until meetings end.

It’s more than a year and a half since the Cabinet moved up to the castle because the conference hall offered enough room to leave a gap of at least 2m between Ministers when meeting. It didn’t stop them catching the virus.

When Covid restrictions were eased in January, the Cabinet continued to gather in Dublin Castle, even though there’s a perfectly good cabinet room in Government Buildings. They’ve held more than half a dozen meetings there since the social distancing requirements were scrapped, still, presumably, observing their 2m Covid cordon sanitaires.

Anyone would think the Taoiseach and his Ministers are trying to stay on at Dublin Castle on purpose

And yet Cabinet members and their advisers are catching the dreaded lurgy at a terrific rate. Tuesday morning Cabinet meetings have a higher attrition rate than teenage club nights in south Co Dublin.

Some Ministers are on their second dose of corona. In the last couple of weeks Simon Harris, Charlie McConalogue and Chief Whip Jack Chambers had to cancel their St Patrick's Day trips due to the virus, and poor Micheál Martin was laid low in Washington. Minister for Justice Helen McEntee succumbed this week; Leo Varadkar was next to declare, while Stephen Donnelly developed his usual monthly symptoms.

Are they holding spitting contests across the Cabinet table?

Anyone would think the Taoiseach and his Ministers are trying to stay on at Dublin Castle on purpose.

For one thing, they love discommoding the media. And for another, tucked away in the corner of a courtyard across town, they won’t be bumping into annoying backbenchers or Opposition TDs looking for a quick word in their ear.

Either that or the Covid Castle serves a better class of schnack.

Sound bites

On Tuesday night, Aontú's Peadar Tóibín asked Minister for Social Protection Heather Humphreys about school meals. He acknowledged that the amount of Government money going into the school meals programme was increasing but said more schools needed to be covered by the schemes to make sure no child in poverty was left out.

The Minister said that while funding was increasing, she particularly wanted to see more hot meals provided. “They are a bit more expensive but I think a hot school meal for a child in the middle of the day is worth its weight in gold.”

She said she would love to see every child in the country, regardless of status, getting a decent school dinner because more often than not, children took a few bites out of a cold packed lunch and then left the rest of it.

“You know and I know what it’s like,” she said to Peadar, “trying to put stuff in lunchboxes and to make them eat it, and trying to get them to eat it.”

Simon Coveney has a lot on his plate these days, and Fianna Fáil's John Lahart is about to add to it

He did. Heather was describing a very familiar, fragrant food experience for parents.

“And most of the time they throw it in the bottom of the bag and by the time you get it, it’s a black banana or it’s a smelly ham sandwich that’s gone off and it’s blue mouldy.

“So a hot school meal delivered to that child sitting at a table is what I want to see. I really do. And I’m going to work to continue to increase that all the time.”

Good stuff and keep it coming.

Politicians on all sides, even the ones from Dublin, won’t hear a bad word said against the dinner in the middle of the day.

Musical chairs

Simon Coveney has a lot on his plate these days.

Fianna Fáil's John Lahart is about to add to it.

During a Dáil discussion on the Passport Office, Rural Independent TD Richard O’Donoghue said that he was having difficulty getting through to it by phone as the lines were constantly busy. “Can we fast-track this so that a politician can actually contact a certain number and get a response?”

Deputy Lahart, who was acting chairman, apologised for butting in but he also had a small request for the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Can they “at least change the music that is played when on hold, given that people from my office have spent so much time listening to it?”

Perhaps he could suggest some suitable music, replied the Minister, adding that the Passport Office was dealing with very high volumes of work at the moment.

“Absolutely!” beamed John. “I would be happy to do that.”

“We are always open to suggestions to improve the passport experience,” said Simon.

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