“Don’t be tempting me now,” threatened the Taoiseach, as a tantalising thought was planted in his head by the Independent TD for Clare.
Although it’s not like the idea hasn’t crossed Micheál Martin’s mind already. What if … what if something came up, something completely unforeseen, something of such enormous magnitude it completely upended the Merrion Street succession agreement?
What then? Obviously he would have no choice but to stay on in the top job until things settled down again.
It was Michael McNamara who painted this scenario during Leaders’ Questions while raising the situation of craft apprentices due to serve their time in four years but now facing a two-year wait before they can finish their training.
He said that 3,500 apprenticeships had been delayed because of backlogs caused by Covid. Given the housing crisis and the pressing need for constructions workers across the country, qualified tradespeople are sorely needed now.
Medical students and others in university “are not being told that instead of your four-year degree, it is now going to take six”, McNamara said.
The Government should “do whatever it takes” to make sure apprentices “get the training they signed up for in full and on time so that they can enter the workforce.”
The Taoiseach was full of praise for the baby plumbers, chippies and sparks. Armed with an impressive array of facts and figures, he held forth on capital investment, increasing capacity, on- and off-the-job training, cutting waiting lists, course restructuring, blended learning and Covid-19.
“It is a very pertinent question that goes to heart of the challenges that face us in terms of Housing for All,” Martin said. He forgot to say “unprecedented” but more than made up for that later when the housing plan was discussed.
Thanks for all that information, said McNamara, but his one, simple question remained unanswered: will these apprentices finish on schedule? They’ve made plans for entering the world of work, such as looking into buying vans and maybe even buying a house.
“I suppose, if I could draw an analogy ... ” continued the barrister from Scarriff, endeavouring to assist the Taoiseach “... your Government is a slightly unusual relationship in that Leo Varadkar is supposed to be the taoiseach again in December 2022. Now, if you turned around to him and said, ‘Well, sure there’s been a lot of difficulties over Covid. Actually you’re not going to be Taoiseach for another year at least … ”
Mattie McGrath interrupted: “He might yet.”
Over the ocean
Micheál didn’t demur. One couldn’t blame him, with Leo an ocean away in Washington and still leeching his limelight with heavy hints about the budget. Again.
Breaking such news to his Tánaiste wouldn’t bode well for the stability of his Government, suggested McNamara. So he might reflect on that and how it must feel like for apprentices who have also made life plans and want to know they are running to schedule.
Micheál smiled. “Don’t tempt me now!”
Chance would be a fine thing.
The state of the housing market and the Housing for All plan took up much of Tuesday’s business. Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald set her party’s tone for the day when pouring scorn on the Minister for Housing’s recent assertion that the property market was not out of control and the Tánaiste’s remark last week that “one person’s rent is another person’s income”.
Could the Taoiseach enlighten her? “What planet are these men living on?”
Not to mentioned Darragh “your man, your Housing Minister” O’Brien’s new plan, which was “clueless and out of touch”.
In support of his man, Micheál managed an unprecedented number of unprecedenteds.
“The Minister has produced Housing for All, an unprecedented, comprehensive strategy backed, in an unprecedented way, by resources to make a far greater number of houses available to enable people to buy houses and afford them,” he said. “What has been announced in Housing for All is unprecedented. The investment is unprecedented.”
Statements on O’Brien’s unprecedented plan were taken later in the day – to be continued on Wednesday. The exchanges followed a familiar pattern.
“I have to say I’ve terrible sense of deja vu,” said Eoin Ó Broin at the outset of his response to the Minister’s speech outlining the merits of his big initiative.
Sinn Féin’s housing spokesman reminded the Government of past efforts, unveiled with similar fanfare by Simon Coveney and Eoghan Murphy.
Which was very true, but that sense of deja vu went further than a pile of abandoned Government solutions.
Also wearyingly familiar was Sinn Féin’s response to the wide-reaching Housing for All proposals, along with the repetition of the stock “what planet are you on?” reactions.
“Do you live in the real world at all, Minister. Do you really?” asked Louise O’Reilly (Dublin Fingal). “What planet are you actually living on?” asked Sorca Clarke (Longford-Westmeath).
Kildare TD Réada Cronin took the out-of-this-world line to new heights and said the housing plan was taking people “on a spin on a magic carpet, only there’s a massive hole in it”.
The Government hit back. Jennifer Carroll MacNeill held up Sinn Féin’s housing policy. “Rubbish” she scoffed. “There are two more, but don’t go looking for any detail.”
Richard Bruton, echoing points made by colleagues from all three Coalition parties, attacked the party on its routine of building a caricature and then attacking it.
The latest caricature, he said, was that the Government housing plan was about private developers. “To try to portray it as some type of attempt to get into cahoots with private developers, to hoodwink people, is simply not the case”.
Green Party TD Steven Matthews complimented Sinn Féin’s good standard of heckling, “but even the heckling doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.”
Darragh O’Brien put up a spirited defence of the plan, outlining its broad reach in detail and his belief it will transform the housing system.
“In reality we must use every weapon we have … There is no silver bullet and I can’t tell you it will be fixed overnight,” he stressed, before looking across the chamber at Ó Broin.
“We can’t let one party’s perfect be the enemy of the common good. The Opposition needs to show what it is offering beyond soundbites, hypocrisy and ideological dead-ends.”
People Before Profit’s Richard Boyd Barrett was hankering after Berlin, where the people have voted for significant rent controls. “They said expropriate landlords. Expropriate!”
But what do we do here when faced with vulture funds controlling large swathes of housing? “We pay for it, they run away with the profits and tenants are screwed.”