Miriam Lord’s Week: Who’s afraid of the big bad social bash?

Brave Barry Ward invites FG colleagues to his Covid-compliant engagement party

It’s a brave Government politician who would organise a big social bash these days, inviting a shedload of Coalition leading lights to an evening of celebratory drinks and finger food in a highfalutin setting to celebrate his wonderful news.

Totally in compliance and above board the event may be, but still...

What could possibly go wrong?

The mere sight of this week's invitation from south Dublin Senator Barry Ward will have had ministerial stomachs doing the twist. Barrister Barry is holding a party on Tuesday night in Dún Laoghaire's Royal Irish Yacht Club to celebrate his engagement to fellow Fine Gaeler Aoife McLoughlin-Ngo. The guest list includes all the members of the Fine Gael parliamentary party along with most of the Seanad.


Complimentary valium and cold compresses will be provided at the door for those trembling FG politicians who chance it.

The loved-up pair were together at Fine Gael's recent think-in; law graduate and former FG Oireachtas staffer Aoife, who hails from Dunshaughlin, works in headquarters and is the party's national youth officer.

"It's a very small, Covid-compliant occasion with all of it pretty much outdoors," stresses Barry, who ran unsuccessfully for a seat in Dún Laoghaire at the last election. The couple haven't set a date for the wedding. "We're not that organised yet," he says. "Probably next year."

The bash will provide a welcome opportunity for his fellow Senators to relax and recuperate after their first day back in the Upper House after the summer recess. God love them, they’ll be shattered.

No worries for father-of-the-groom Big Phil

Where's Big Phil these days? Once upon a time the former EU commissioner for trade was the go-to Mr Fixit for Fine Gael's political big-hitters. Wily Phil Hogan was the man with the streetwise strategic advice at times of gathering crisis. But when Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney clinically cut him adrift at the height of last year's "golfgate" hysteria, effectively precipitating his departure from the commission, they also lost the ear of a hardbitten and shrewd tactician.

It’s been a rough few weeks for Varadkar and Coveney. They could have done with a bit of no-nonsense direction from heavyweight Hogan.

In contrast, Hogan is in flying form. To say he was angry and hurt at the way he was treated by the party leadership would be an understatement, but he has moved on. He spent last weekend at the K Club, perhaps keeping an eye on the continuing spectacle and maybe taking a little pleasure in it.

He was having a lovely time at his son's wedding while the pair who shafted him were squirming. It was a big wedding in as much as the restrictions allowed – a two-day affair, with a gathering in Meath for those guests who couldn't be accommodated on the day due to the reduced numbers at the Kildare estate.

Fr Brian D’Arcy, a friend of the mother of the bride, officiated at the wedding ceremony.

Unlike his former party colleagues, Big Phil hadn't a care in the world. His only regret was that he missed the Mayo match due to father-of-the-groom duties.

A tale in the sting for Fine Gael

The nonchalant way in which Sinn Féin's Matt Carthy casually dropped Simon Harris's name into the Dáil record while reading a scripted speech shocked many TDs on Wednesday night, and not just those on the Government benches. The deputy for Cavan-Monaghan – or whoever drafted his words – would have been aware that effectively accusing a serving Minister of breaking Cabinet confidentiality (and the law) is a very serious charge to make on the floor of the national parliament.

Deputy Carthy didn't sound in the least bit put out when admitting in a radio interview the following day with RTÉ's Justin McCarthy that he hasn't any evidence to support his assertions that "Fine Gael were running a sting operation to expose that Simon Harris had leaked from the Cabinet meeting".

Harris has vehemently denied the charge and is “seriously” thinking about lodging an official complaint.

The famous “sting” readied up by a Fine Gael TD – who has been named in some quarters as junior minister Patrick O’Donovan (he also vehemently denies the charge) – was designed to see if false information given during a phone conversation would make its way to a journalist. It did, minutes after the call. However, where is the link between the blabbermouth who ran straight to a hack with readied-up information from a conversation held outside of Cabinet and the person who snuck out details of the Zappone appointment while Cabinet was in session?

One TD remarked it was like the last supper with Judas and Jesus. Another compared it to the dinner scene in The Untouchables, but without the baseball bat

Carthy’s shameless “shoot first and ask questions later” approach may yet come back to bite him.

But the names of Harris and O’Donovan are out there and have been for some time. Which is why the sight of the Minister for Higher Education and the junior minister at the OPW dining and laughing together over lunch at the Fine Gael think-in in Trim was a source of great amusement last week.

One TD remarked it was like the last supper with Judas and Jesus. Another compared it to the dinner scene in The Untouchables, but without the baseball bat...

One of the main talking points at that think-in was the introduction of the Attorney General into the Zapponegate controversy. Paul Gallagher's advice on the legality of the former minister's soiree in the Merrion hotel (he said it fell within the guidelines for the number of people allowed at outdoor social events) saved party guest Leo Varadkar's bacon.

"People thought dragging the AG into it was shocking," said one attendee afterwards. "You can't blame Fianna Fáil for being disgusted over it. You get the impression that, for the three fellas at the top [of Fine Gael], they just want to get the f**k out of it as soon as they can. The big rumour is that Paschal is after a job in the Central Bank, Leo is looking to go to Europe and Simon wants a number in America."

As is the way in politics, minds are already concentrating on the succession, with two names figuring: Simon Harris and Helen McEntee.

No more Mr Nice Opposition

Sinn Féin’s highly focused and bitingly aggressive approach to opposition is proving something of a culture shock to two main Government parties used to decades of a keen and often bruising parliamentary rivalry, but one played out within long-accepted and fairly comfortable rules.

Now Sinn Féin occupies the role of main Opposition and the party has little time for the established niceties of Dáil business. Ambitious politicians used to think they had made it to the top when told “you’re playing senior hurling now”. This was the accolade bestowed on political big-hitters and one they accepted with a certain pride.

But Sinn Féin has upped the ante, barrelling onto the pitch and taking no prisoners. This is senior hurling with knobs on, and a few nine-inch nails through the toe and bas.

No wonder the competition looked winded on Wednesday night.

They’ll have to redraw the game plans.

Meanwhile, with single-minded Sinn Féin riding the Zapponey Express to exhaustion, party members were fired up and fit for the fight.

Which was good to see, because in the two most recent controversies involving Sinn Féin TDs and angry calls for them to face their peers in the Dáil chamber, the protagonists unfortunately suffered personal setbacks. There was also widespread deletion of social media accounts.

As the controversy over vile tweets by Laois-Offaly's Brian Stanley gathered pace last year, party leader Mary Lou McDonald sent him on gardening leave for a week "to be with his family, for whom this period of public controversy has proven very difficult". Speaking of stings, this took the sting out of the affair.

Then Tipperary's Martin Browne, embroiled in a similarly embarrassing controversy which included a marked reluctance to apologise for IRA atrocities, was under heavy pressure from members of the Oireachtas committee he chairs to face questions on unacceptable tweets and utterances, but in a stroke of bad luck he took ill and had to go to hospital.

Fortunately, deputy Browne was released very quickly and was home in no time. His party told the Irish Independent: “He was briefly in hospital for a minor issue that flares up occasionally. He is back home. There is no connection to stress or to Covid.”

Understandably, Martin was off for the rest of the week. And then the Dáil rose for Christmas.

And that was that.

Teething troubles as TDs resettle in Leinster House

Danny Healy-Rae’s impassioned contributions from the front row of the dress circle provided some mild diversion in the dreary days of the Convention Centre Dáil. The Independent TD for Kerry regularly put the heart crossways in the Ceann Comhairle, who would implore him not to get too carried away in case he toppled over the balcony into the stalls below.

It must have been a case of deja vu for both men on the first day back in Leinster House when DHR arrived for the big confidence vote on Wednesday evening. New seating arrangements were in place to allow all 159 TDs to vote together while also complying with social distancing requirements. The public gallery, which sweeps around the Dáil chamber like the business end of a wall of death, was commandeered for the extra space.

Danny was seated there when the time came for the roll-call vote, looking down on Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl once again. “Tá,” came his voice from above, both Healy-Rae brothers voting confidence in Simon Coveney despite their reservations about the Government he represents.

“Would I vote against the Minister personally? I would not,” declared Michael. “He is a good, solid political worker. Saying different is not factual ... I have nothing to gain by voting in the Minister’s favour, other than that my political judgment says it is the right thing to do.”

Danny thought the Dáil had far more important issues to discuss than the Sinn Féin-instigated confidence motion in Coveney. “I think it’s a shame, the time that’s been wasted on another debate on a confidence motion,” he said.

Above on the balcony, the voting went ahead in a calm, civilised manner. But the Ceann Comhairle wasn’t worried one way or the other, because, unlike in the Convention Centre, the Dáil’s dress circle is behind full-length protective glass.

Earlier, Danny swallowed his misgivings, along with his dinner, at lunchtime in the Dáil canteen. The full catering service is back in operation, with seating available and a proper menu in the middle of the day. However, in accordance with the law, people who want a sit-down meal must first present proof of vaccination.

This makes for a very odd experience as the customer sits at chin level with the bar, rather like a child peering over the high counter of a sweetie shop

Healy-Rae voted against legislation passed before the summer recess requiring the production of Covid passes for indoor dining. “This is totally, absolutely ridiculous,” he fumed. The TD and publican (he runs his late father Jackie’s bar in Kilgarvan) is on record saying he would “certainly not” ask his staff to check patrons’ vaccination status.

But people in Leinster House will be denied their dinner if they choose to take a similar course. No Covid pass, no sit-down dinner.

Danny, credentials presented, opted for the dinner.

A few doors down in the Dáil bar, strict rules are also in operation. Standing at the counter is not allowed, with low tables pressed against it instead. This makes for a very odd experience as the customer sits at chin level with the bar, rather like a child peering over the high counter of a sweetie shop.

But for all that, life is back in Leinster House and the corridors are buzzing again. In a narky opening week on the political front, the return to Kildare Street was unanimously welcomed by all.