Miriam Lord’s Week: Sinn Féin’s acrobatic motion mesmerises Naughten

Two Green scalps and Government blushes more valuable to SF than ineffectual motion

There was more than a touch of political circus around Wednesday night’s vote on the National Maternity Hospital. Denis Naughten was particularly impressed by the tumbling skills of Sinn Féin’s parliamentary contortionists.

The former Fine Gael minister turned Independent TD for Roscommon-Galway notches up 25 years of unbroken Dáil service next month. (Two of his erstwhile colleagues, Paul Kehoe and Damien English, are 20 years in the Dáil this week and were congratulated by the Tánaiste at the Fine Gael parliamentary party Meeting. “What about me?” came a plaintive cry from Fergus O’Dowd at the back of the room. Fergus also became a TD in 2002, but Leo didn’t include him as he first entered the Oireachtas five years earlier as a Senator.)

But back to Denis, who witnessed a career first after a quarter of a century on Wednesday night.

“What we have seen tonight was political acrobatics at its best,” he told RTÉ’s Late Debate after the party’s non-binding motion calling for the hospital to be built on public land was passed. The Government tried to prevent this vote by letting it through unopposed, thus avoiding the embarrassing loss of two Green TDs who intended to side with the Opposition.

But the Rural Independents scuppered the ruse by seeking a Dáil vote to register their opposition to Sinn Féin’s motion. The six TDs easily secured the magic number of 10 deputies required to force a division thanks to the unlikely support of Solidarity-People Before Profit.

When the time came, the Leas-Cheann Comhairle asked “the members who are claiming the division to rise in their places”. The Roaring Independents jumped to their feet and the socialist rump duly kept their promise, backflipping briefly to Mattie McGrath’s team.

"No, no, no, no," spluttered Denis. "No, no. No, no, no, Pauline"

And then “the Sinn Féin membership in the parliamentary party stood up in the Dáil to call a vote against their own motion. Then sat down and voted for that motion”, recalled Denis, sounding gobsmacked.

Pauline Tully, Sinn Féin TD for Cavan-Monaghan, tried to explain. “We stood up and agreed there should be a vote.”

“No, no, no, no,” spluttered Denis. “No, no. No, no, no, Pauline. The vote was called yesterday. Mattie McGrath called the vote. He had an issue with the wording in your motion – fair enough – and in order for there to be a vote on it, 10 people had to support the call for a vote against the motion. And they had more than 10, including the Sinn Féin party, who actually stood up to oppose their own motion and then sat down and voted for it.

“That’s political acrobatics. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen, in my political career, a situation where people who wanted a motion to go through called a vote to stop it actually going through.”

But of course, they knew it would. With two Green scalps and government embarrassment as a bonus – far more valuable than the result of any ineffectual motion.

Peadar in a lather

That debate on the maternity hospital had some interesting contributions. There was hint of settling old scores from Aontú’s Peadar Tóibín during his speech in favour of the Government’s proposal. He spoke about the thorny issue of ownership of the hospital site.

“Now I hear people say that the ground should be gifted to the State. Sinn Féin has over 100 properties in the State at the moment. I would suggest that, maybe, Sinn Féin gift some of their properties to the State. See, the thing about it is, it’s easy to be generous with other people’s property. It’s much too easy. And people shouldn’t ask others to do what they wouldn’t do themselves,” declared the Aontú leader … and former Sinn Féin TD for Meath West.

Peadar was among those deploring the anti-church rhetoric from many speakers who supported the motion.

"But of course, there's an awful lot of politicians here – they can't believe in God because they think they're God themselves"

And in the unlikely event that the Sisters might have been tuned into live proceedings that night, Michael Healy-Rae had a special message for them, one that was echoed by his Rural Independent colleagues and the aforementioned Tóibín.

“If there are nuns listening, I’d like to say something that they didn’t hear coming out of this chamber yet, until, perhaps, right now: thank you very much. Because nobody has yet said thank you. All everybody has done is try to pick fault and find everything possible wrong with it, all because of this anti-religion agenda that is going on in Ireland at present and I think it’s absolutely outrageous.”

The Kerry TD added: “But of course, there’s an awful lot of politicians here – they can’t believe in God because they think they’re God themselves.”

Independent TD for Galway West Catherine Connolly took him up on this.

“I don’t think I want to be God, but if I was arrogant enough I don’t think I would go down that road. I’d choose to be a goddess maybe and do it completely differently.”

His proper title

Micheál Martin doesn’t strike us as a Bishop Brennan type, but someone on high in Government Buildings is not happy with the way some people are playing fast and loose with the Taoiseach’s exalted title.

The Government Information Service has just sent a memo about this to the many and various handlers employed to dicky up the coalition and proclaim its great works to the people.

“For your guidance, a note on the correct use of the title ‘Taoiseach’ in written material,” it begins. “In written form always use ‘the Taoiseach’ in English, and only use ‘An Taoiseach’ in Irish.”

Examples were included.

“Speech by Taoiseach ____, TD” but not “Speech by an Taoiseach ____, TD”

“In press releases, “Taoiseach Micheál Martin congratulates…”

“Statement of the Taoiseach” not “Statement of an Taoiseach”.

The hired help has been instructed to “ensure that press releases and other materials, including speeches and publications, use the correct title.”

Standards must be maintained to avoid the slippery slope or before we know it they’ll be referring to the Taoiseach as plain “Micheál”. Bishop Brennan from Fr Ted had the right idea when Fr Dougal took liberties with his name.

“Did he call me Len again? You address me by my proper title, you little bollocks!”

You can take the múinteoir out of school

Congressman Richard Neal had better mind his Ps and Qs when he has dinner in Dingle on Sunday with Norma Foley. Because when Norma is asked a question, she gives her one answer and that’s that. Any follow-up requests for clarification or elucidation will not be entertained.

Because the Minister for Education has her answer and she will keep repeating it until her questioner is múinteoired into submission.

Norma, a secondary school teacher in her former life, was before the Oireachtas Committee on Gender Equality this week, where she was asked about sex education in schools. A blast of Arctic air whistled through Committee Room 2 when the Minister exchanged icy words with Fine Gael spokesperson for equality Jennifer Carroll MacNeill.

This came after People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith accused her of not answering a question about religious ethos influencing the teaching of sex education in certain schools. Jennifer Carroll MacNeill then asked if “every child will receive an identical education with no opt-out for parents or schools” in accordance with the curriculum.

“The curriculum will be followed, as laid down, in our schools,” she replied.

But what does that mean? Jennifer said all she needed was a yes or no answer but wasn’t getting one, and not for the first time on this issue, from the Minister.

Norma repeated the curriculum would be followed as laid down in our schools.

Jennifer sighed heavily as her Coalition colleague talked at length around a straight reply and indicated she didn’t want to hear any more.

It was the most viciously polite scuffle ever seen in Leinster House

“No, and I want to be clear,” insisted Norma, holding up her hand like a traffic cop on match-day duty. “If I could say to you, Deputy,” she smiled with furious serenity. “If the answer is correct the first time and if the information I give you is correct the first time, it will be correct the second and the third time when you ask me as well, irrespective of how you frame it. So.”

“Oh my goodness,” gasped Jennifer. “Oh my goodness!”

It was the most viciously polite scuffle ever seen in Leinster House.

It’s back to Kerry on Sunday for Norma, where she will host Congressman Neal, who chairs the powerful Ways and Means Committee on Capitol Hill, and a bipartisan congressional delegation currently doing Belgium, Britain and Ireland.

After they arrive at Farranfore, the visiting US politicians will be shipped over the Blaskets, where Norma will be hosting a reception at the Great Blasket Centre. Richard Neal’s people on his mother’s side hail from Ventry in the west Kerry Gaeltacht, so he should enjoy the trip. The Minister might even give him an aul blasht of Peig Sayers, just to underline that the suffering endured down through the decades by students forced to study the stout-hearted widow’s account of island life in bygone days.

However, he will be immensely cheered by the presence of Senator Mark Daly, freshly returned from a trip to Kyiv with Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl, where their presence gave great comfort to the people of war-torn Ukraine.

Apparently the Minister has a keen interest in Northern Irish politics and will be setting out the Government’s position in relation to the NI protocol and the Belfast Agreement, possibly from the inglenook in Peig’s cottage. There may be turf.

That night, Norma will host a private dinner in dingle with Neal and the eight members of his delegation, along with “a select number of guests”. We don’t know if Jennifer Carroll MacNeill is on the invitation list. There may be surf and turf.

Then it’s on to Dublin on Monday morning for the delegation and from there to Belfast.