Miriam Lord: Shane Ross’s rules a red rag to angry Cabinet
‘Obstinate, disruptive’ Winston Churchtown managing to rub everyone up wrong way
How do you solve a problem like the Minister? “Everyone is convinced that Shane wants to get himself fired.” Photograph: Alan Betson
For a confident, ambitious man who likes a lot of attention and the sound of his own voice, the job of government minister must seem very attractive.
Shane Ross was rightly chuffed when Enda Kenny called to offer him a seat at Cabinet.
All those years sounding off in the Seanad and Dáil and in his newspaper column had paid off.
Recognition at last. With a pseudo-party of his own to go with it.
Power. Influence. Respect. Free tickets to football internationals.
Except now that he has it, Ross is doing his level best to get fired.
Ross’s colleagues in Government and in the Independent Alliance are scratching their heads and wondering what he’s at.
Micheál Martin devoted his Leaders’ Questions slot on Tuesday to an examination of the Minister for Transport’s record since taking office, and demanded that the Taoiseach do something about his “behaviour”. What is he going to do with this “mini-dictator”?
Enda said he had spoken to him, adopting the tone of an exasperated teacher who has all but given up on the biggest messer in class.
Hours earlier, the two men had a blazing row at Cabinet when Ross insisted the Independent Alliance should have a free vote on Sinn Féin’s neutrality Bill (as the issue was not in their agreed programme for government), and Kenny refused to budge on what he saw as “a matter of fundamental government policy”.
“THIS trumps the programme for government,” the Taoiseach told Winston, waving a copy of the Constitution at him.
Takes the biscuit
It appears there are few Ministers who would disagree with the Fianna Fáil leader’s assessment of Ross’s performance.
“I’ve had to deal with some obstinate, disruptive politicians in my time, and I’ve had tough battles with a few Fianna Fáilers, but this fella takes the biscuit,” said one.
They contrast his behaviour with that of those junior Ministers who are members of the Independent Alliance, who are putting in the hard yards in their departments and striving for results.
Ross’s Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport is Patrick O’Donovan from Limerick. The puckish O’Donovan is a wily operator – he’s been described as the Flurry Knox to Ross’s Irish RM.
But Flurry can’t be happy in a department that appears rudderless at the moment.
Government members will list off all the things that Winston Churchtown hasn’t done, or has done when it’s got nothing to do with his portfolio.
Among other things, they cite the lack of any urgency about Brexit (his department was the only one not to get any budget funding for Brexit planning), no movement on aviation policy or funding for primary roads, and the fact that he has still to meet representatives from many of the State agencies under his control.
“Everyone is convinced that Shane wants to get himself fired,” said one observer of the departmental set-up. “It’s like he’s got the things he wanted for his constituency in south Dublin and now wants to go into Opposition so he can make big speeches and shout at the Government again.”
Or maybe he’s just a slow starter.
Laois-bound Flanagan misses county tribute
The fallout from Ross’s most recent eruption reverberated all the way to Co Laois.
We hear Charlie Flanagan, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, was really looking forward to Thursday night because Laois County Council was hosting a civic reception in his honour for distinguished service at home and abroad.
Inside Politics: Populism
The event was a long time in the planning, and Thursday was chosen because Dáil business usually finishes up early on that day.
By all accounts, Charlie was delighted with his invitation to County Hall in Portlaoise; there were even rumours of a new suit having been purchased. With his foreign affairs portfolio, he doesn’t get around the constituency as much as he used to, so to be afforded this rare distinction was a pleasant surprise.
And then Ross kicked up at Cabinet about Sinn Féin’s neutrality Bill, demanding a free vote for Independent Alliance members, some of whom wanted to vote with Sinn Féin and against the Government line.
But Enda Kenny prevailed. There was no free vote allowed, and details of the Cabinet bust-up were swiftly leaked to the media.
But because of the very robust nature of Tuesday’s row in Government Buildings, it was decided that the senior Minister in Foreign Affairs should attend Thursday night’s debate to stress the Cabinet’s position and underline that he was speaking for the entire Government.
Andrew Doyle, the Minister of State for Agriculture, had been pencilled in to make the Government’s closing speech. But, thanks to Winston Churchtown, he was stood down and Flanagan was drafted in.
So Charlie will have to wait a little while longer now for his tribute.
Whether it will entitle him to graze his sheep on the Great Heath of Maryborough is another question.
Doctors in need of a good stiff one after bollocking
Just who do these leading health professionals think they are, with their medical knowledge and years of clinical practice and notions about protecting public health?
Swanning into the Fine Gael party room on Wednesday evening like they were doctors or professors or suchlike, hoping to engage TDs and senators with their frontline evidence of how misuse of alcohol is wrecking lives and placing the health service under unacceptable strain.
The cheek of them.
It explains why nobody thought to give them the courtesy of a hearing, and why an urgent text alert had to be sent to all party members: “We need bodies in the PP room. 15 doctors but no TDs or senators!”
Anyone talking to certain Fine Gael politicians in the few days leading up to the meeting will not have been surprised by this. There was much eye-rolling about “the College of Physicians”, no less, coming in to “lecture” them about the dangers of alcohol, as if they didn’t know about that already.
And putting a section in the new alcohol Bill forcing corner shops to put their booze behind a screen was pure daft.
And then they would smile and say, “It’ll be very interesting to see how many turn up to meet them.”
Cover up the tipple
The Bill, currently staggering through the Oireachtas like a drunken sailor, requires that alcohol be displayed separately from other products so that customers, and particularly children, do not regard it in the same light as other items for sale. Rather in the way cigarettes are now hidden from view, booze will have to be covered by a curtain or a screen.
It doesn’t have to be anything fancy although, if the proposal goes through, the drinks industry will probably supply nifty little curtains to the shops and all the adults will know immediately where to find the liquor.
After the meeting, word filtered out from Fine Gael that the medics had been given a pretty torrid time. People sounded quite pleased about this.
The delegation was led by Prof Frank Murray, president of the Royal College of Physicians. It included Prof Aiden McCormick, who heads the liver transplant unit in St Vincents Hospital; consultant John Hillery, who is the incoming president of the College of Psychiatrists; cancer specialist Dr Marie Laffoy; and consultant gastroenterologist at University Hospital Limerick Dr Maeve Skelly. It also included professionals from areas such as branding, marketing and consumer affairs.
To say the doctors were taken aback by the reception they received would be an understatement. “The anger in the room was palpable. There was a real air of tension from the beginning,” a delegation member told us afterwards.
“We went in to talk about public health and to explain why we fully support the Bill and why it is so necessary. But we weren’t prepared for people to be so angry. It was the shouting that shocked us the most.”
Waterford TD John Deasy was first to speak. He demanded to know what they were up to: “Why did you come in here?” Then he said he wasn’t elected “to put small shops out of business”.
The meeting lasted about 50 minutes, with the visitors outlining what they have to contend with in their daily work and the serious damage alcohol was wreaking on Irish society. Then they took questions.
“It was bonkers. We were looking at each other and thinking, what the hell is going on? All they wanted to do was talk about the small retailer and how we want to ruin them.”
Equal treatment for crisps
Some experts talked about alcohol being a psychoactive drug – a mood or consciousness-altering substance. TD Josepha Madigan of Dublin Rathdown asked them to explain what “psychoactive” meant.
Kerry TD Brendan Griffin fulminated about the dangers posed by obesity and wanted to know why they weren’t advocating hiding sweets and crisp a behind curtain.
The former minister for health, Dr James Reilly, was one of the few voices in favour of the Bill, which was introduced by Leo Varadkar during the last government but fell when the general election was called.
It’s interesting to note that its latest iteration is much the same, but while Varadkar faced some opposition when he was in charge, it was nothing compared to the rather nasty nature of the pressure now being heaped upon junior Minister for Health Marcella Corcoran Kennedy by party colleagues.
Our shell-shocked witness says delegation members are still reminding each other of moments from the meeting. “My most vivid memory is of Michelle Mulherrin standing up, shouting and waving her hands in the air and roaring about retailers. Unbelievable stuff.”
When the medical experts finally made good their escape, they headed straight to the canteen to ask each other if what just happened had really happened.
They should have turned right, instead of left, and gone to the bar.
Meanwhile, lobbyists for the retailers and the drinks industry continued to infest the building.
Norris in rude good health
Gerard Craughwell startled his fellow senators with a throwaway comment on Wednesday.
“Age before beauty,” David Norris had remarked, when the chairman indicated he should speak ahead of the former TUI president.
The comment stuck in Craughwell’s mind. When his turn came, he thanked the Leas-Chathaoirleach and declared: “I’ll have you know I was once a pin-up for people . . . ”
The chairman, fearing too much information might be on the way, told the Senator to stick to the point, only for Norris to nip in with an explanation.
“It was a nude calendar for the blind.”
The Trinity senator was in flying form this week.
Norris stuck his oar in during heated exchanges between Fine Gael’s Jerry Buttimer and Independent Senator Rónan Mullen over legislation to shut down rogue crisis pregnancy counselling agencies.
“As a member of the pro-life movement, which I am, I believe in life, I support life, I do not denigrate life. So I am a member of the pro-life movement,” Norris announced.”I completely reject the vulgar nonsense that Senator Mullen has been spouting.”
He elaborated for us afterwards.
“Not many people know this, but I was a founder member of SPUC. The Society for the Protection of the Unborn Chicken. I don’t eat eggs.”