Ministers of State – past and present – will have been cheering straight-talking Anne Rabbitte this week when she uttered a seldom mentioned truth during a Topical Issues debate at the end of a long Dáil day.
The Topical Issues session gives TDs a chance to raise matters of interest with a relevant Minister. The Ceann Comhairle selects four questions from the large number submitted for consideration each day.
While Cabinet members have busy schedules, it has long been a source of irritation to deputies that senior Ministers frequently dispatch a junior minister to do their answering for them.
“Topicals” were the last item of Dáil business on Wednesday and Anne Rabbitte, Minister of State for Disabilities, was in the hot seat.
Her Fianna Fáil colleague, Niamh Smyth, a TD for Cavan-Monaghan, wanted to ask about the development of the Cavan Institute as a hub for further education and training, which is bursting at the seams and urgently requires a new building.
“Minister, I am disappointed, not by your presence, but by the fact that the Minister for Further Education isn’t here,” was her diplomatic opener.
As a junior minister, Anne Rabbitte would be well used to getting that sort of reaction.
“There is nothing to stop this project except commitment from the Government to do this,” explained Niamh, at a loss to understand why there has been no movement from the department to date.
She finished on a positive note: “I hope that the Minister for Further Education has given you some good news to bring back to me tonight.”
Anne Rabbitte rose wearily.
“Yes, I am taking this on behalf of Minister Harris. And you and I both know if there was good news, Minister Harris would be here. It wouldn’t be wee Anne from Galway delivering it.”
To be fair to Simon Harris, he was in Cork for much of Tuesday.
But Rabbitte wasn’t wrong either.
There’s been something off about Dáil proceedings of late.
Leaders’ Questions just that bit quieter. A little less drama. Fewer colourful eruptions. A dialling down of the high dudgeon.
Then the penny dropped.
Mattie McGrath has been missing for the past five weeks.
The high-profile rural Independent TD is currently hors de combat and slowly recovering at home in Tipperary.
Mattie told us of the frightening experience he had early last month when his sight suddenly went in one eye. “It turns out I had a detached retina. Common enough, apparently. I don’t know how it happened. It was a terrible shock.”
Deputy McGrath recently underwent a four-hour eye operation in Dublin’s Mater hospital and he is due to have a second operation early next year to complete the repair process and restore his vision.
“A detached retina can often happen to sportspeople. Boxers get them a lot. People have been asking if the wife hit me with a poker. No. She didn’t. Well, not yet, anyway.”
He is “kind of half back at work” but he can’t drive because his sight is still impaired. “I’m doing as much as I can here in Tipperary. I might make it back up to Leinster House next week, but I’m not sure. I’m finding the recovery is very slow.”
There is nothing wrong with this mouth, though. He was on Newstalk this week expressing serious concern over the proposed merging of several Garda divisions, including Tipperary and Clare. He said the plan to amalgamate certain counties was reckless and beggared belief.
While losing the sight in one eye “out of the blue” came as a big shock, Mattie says he is on the road to recovery and there are many people far worse off than him.
“I don’t want anyone dancing on my grave just yet. I’m still fighting fit and the tongue is in working order. I’ll be bouncing back soon, please God.”
Politicians, staff and media have been back at work in Leinster House since the end of the summer recess, but visitors are still not allowed on the premises.
The place is usually abuzz with tour groups, visiting constituents and guests of politicians and permanent pass-holders. But these days, entry is strictly limited to people who need to be there for work purposes. The public gallery remains a no-go area for outsiders. Even former TDs and senators are not encouraged in.
However, the Ceann Comhairle has announced that the Members’ Restaurant, where mere mortals are permitted to dine if invited to do so by an Oireachtas member, is to be reopened on Monday.
By the looks of it, the politicians may have to eat among themselves for a little while longer and put their guest entertainment plans on hold
A letter containing the good news has been sent to all elected representatives. Tables of 10 are now permitted again – at least one member and up to nine guests.
It isn’t known if the same visitors will be able to enter the Dáil bar to partake of a little aperitif before the nosebag or a post-prandial snifter, because the rules have yet to be loosened for that particular Oireachtas oasis.
However, with the alarmingly high numbers of Covid cases this week culminating in a figure of almost 5,500 cases on Friday, the Oireachtas authorities may have to have a rethink. Or at least offer a side order of antigen tests with every course.
What must Tony Holohan think?
He told the public to reduce their social outings and the number of people they meet by half in the coming weeks.
“Before you leave the house, think about the number of people you are going to meet, and the risk associated with the activities you have planned.”
Will the Members’ Restaurant grand reopening happen now? By the looks of it, the politicians may have to eat among themselves for a little while longer and put their guest entertainment plans on hold.
Blah, blah, blah
It was no surprise when a certain phrase surfaced in the Dáil during the week. The only question had been: who will be the one to say it?
Given Sinn Féin’s devotion to the populist sound bite, it was equally no surprise when Mary Lou McDonald showcased it during Leaders’ Questions on Wednesday when she raised the issue of soaring housing rental costs.
“I’m asking you to cut rents and ban rent increases for three years. I’m asking you to do both of these things urgently,” she urged the Taoiseach. “No more blah blah blah.”
After giving a rundown on Government policy in the area, Micheál embarked on a familiar line of attack.
“I have looked at your party’s policies in Northern Ireland and your colleague, Minister Hargey, has the responsibility. It is interesting to see that we’re far more advanced in our legislation on protecting renters than you are in terms of your minister on the Northern Ireland Executive. And everything you’ve criticised here...”
“Blah blah blah,” went Mary Lou, channelling Greta Thunberg.
“ ...you’re doing that...”
“Blah blah blah”
“...in Northern Ireland and, indeed, to a lesser extent than...”
“Blah blah blah. Answer the question.”
“... we are doing here.”
The phrase was also used by rural Independent Michael Collins during a debate on rising fuel prices while Paul Murphy of Solidarity-People Before Profit invoked Greta’s famous pronouncement the day before when asking how could the Government’s policy on climate change be described as anything other than “more blah blah blah”.
The Taoiseach came out with a strange response. “Deputy Murphy raised ‘blah blah blah’ which was a phrase coined by the British prime minister, originally, actually. Boris Johnson at the beginning of the Cop26 conference.”
Thunberg’s use of the phrase has seen its popularity increase in Dáil exchanges since she said those words in September. Before then, one has to go back two years to find it on the record.
Richard Boyd-Barrett is quite fond of it. He came with a zinger in 2014 after the Enda Kenny’s Fine Gael government devoted three days of congratulatory Dáil statements on its list of priorities for the year ahead.
“Let me summarise the taoiseach and tánaiste’s speech: ‘Blah, blah, blah, blah. Mumble, mumble. Blah, blah, blah. Mumble, mumble. Success.’ What a load of bullshit!”
But former Green Party TD Paul Gogarty beat Greta to the punch in 2005 during the debate on his party’s farsighted Climate Change Targets Bill.
“The debate has shown that Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats have no clothes on in terms of the issues of climate change and energy security,” said GoGo, who once scandalised the chamber by roaring “Go f**k yourself, Deputy Stagg!” at Labour TD Emmet Stagg.
“The Government has no clothes on and is talking through its collective posterior. A lot of hot air is being created and it’s coming from the wrong end. People are sick and tired of the S-H-I-T on climate change coming from the government benches.
Has the Minister tabled an amendment that will take on board some of the proposals or will the Government simply vote it down, saying blah, blah, blah about farm incomes and industry?”
It was voted down.
Seanad 100 is coming up and there are great plans in the Upper House for next year’s centenary.
Cathaoirleach Mark Daly has informed his Seanad colleagues that he is “currently working with officials on a process to identify the most significant contributions made by senators during proceedings in the Seanad over the last 100 years. I intend that extracts from some of these contributions could form part of a commemorative publication.”
He feels this compilation “would help to draw attention to the way in which the Seanad has often been a forum in which views could be expressed and ideas promoted which might, perhaps for electoral reasons, have been more difficult to raise in the Dáil”.
The Cathaoirleach would welcome any suggestions “on contributions that you believe are particularly significant”.
Good thing they aren’t working on a compendium of the most daft contributions. They would have to bring out a fair few volumes.
And speaking of the Seanad, David Norris’s portrait unveiling in Leinster House on Tuesday was followed by an informal lunch with the newly honoured Father of the House and a number of guests including his nephew, John Norris, his cousin David and wife Felicity and close childhood friends Michael and Abigail.
The portrait will hang in Leinster House. “If it wasn’t going to Leinster House I was going to ask him to sell it to me,” said Michael McDowell.
The lunch featured Norris’s favourite dishes from the canteen, but in miniature form. John and Julie from the restaurant team turned out a mouthwatering selection, including mini-cottage pies, homemade chips, mini-meringues and David’s absolute favourite, Queen of Pudding.