Miriam Lord: Skeletons rattle in cupboards as Cowen takes a fall

Leo’s pomp, orchard-robber analogy, plastic forks and a six-minute Dáil to Dockside dash

It had to be the sad news last Saturday of Jackie Charlton’s death and fond thoughts of those gloriously madcap World Cup summers in the 1990s which had us mulling over the political future of Barry Cowen via the medium of commentator George Hamilton.

And when the morning news bulletins went from announcing the passing of Big Jack to reporting the latest predicament of bruiser Barry, Hamilton’s famously dreaded phrase immediately sprang to mind:

“Danger here!”

By the end of last week, it looked like the furore over the Fianna Fáil minister’s conviction four years ago for a drink-driving offence was running out of steam. Hadn’t Micheál Martin’s new minister for agriculture thrown himself at the feet of his colleagues, telling all in an emotional Dáil statement and begging forgiveness? He promised he had revealed everything that needed to be known about his motoring history, so there was nothing more to worry about.

When Cowen’s case was up for scrutiny initially, there was a very noticeable reluctance among opposition politicians to go much further than condemn the general unacceptability of driving while under the influence of alcohol. You could sense that those TDs who exist in a state of near-permanent outrage were holding back.

By harping on about one politician’s historic traffic violation they knew they were risking some old skeletons tumbling from their own cupboards.

If Barry Cowen and the government weathered the weekend, the circus would move on. But then The Sunday Times scuppered that hope, reporting that the Garda file on the incident describes the then opposition TD doing a U-turn in an effort to evade the checkpoint. This is a version of events which Barry Cowen vehemently disputes.

When he refused all requests from the Taoiseach to return to the Dáil and address the latest twist, Micheál Martin sacked him.

Which brings us back to Big Jack and the glory days of Irish soccer.

After his shock dismissal from Cabinet, political journalists contacted Barry for a comment. He texted back the same, one line, reply.

“As Bill O’Herlihy used to say . . . ‘We’ll leave it there so.’”

Humble tánaiste

Now that he is a humble tánaiste, Leo Varadkar is making the most of his reduced circumstances. Reigning over his court in exile, complete with the trappings (aide-de-camp, retinue of advisers, regal photo-ops, pronouncements).

He loves the bit of pomp and ceremony. This probably explains why the announcement of the Covid-19 credit guarantee scheme was withheld from the Cabinet briefing for hacks on Monday evening. Instead, he unveiled it to the realm from the lofty platform of Morning Ireland on Tuesday.

It will be “the largest credit guarantee scheme in the history of the State” he declared, adding that the Government plans to push the legislation through the Dáil next week. It should be “up and running” by September.

It was a nice start to the day for the former taoiseach, who tells us he sees his new situation as a "four jobs" gig – tánaiste, party leader, TD for Dublin West and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Enterprise. Wonder did he spare a thought for his successor Micheál Martin? As he was concluding his good news interview, the Taoiseach was sharpening the knife in case he might need it to dispatch his minister for agriculture later in the day.

‘Dumpster fire’

The shock sacking of Barry Cowen in time for the 9pm news was the big talking point in the Convention Centre on Wednesday. Micheál spent much of it on the rack in the temporary Docklands Dáil where his turbulent first 2½ weeks in office was dismissed by Paul Murphy of RISE as “a dumpster fire”.

But he had time for a breather on Wednesday night when he hosted his first Cabinet dinner in Dublin Castle. It was after the Cabinet meeting, which began at 5.30, so they didn’t have the dinner in the middle of the day.

There was a tripartite menu as befits a tripartite government – Chicken, fish and “a veggie something”.

By Thursday, the Taoiseach escaped to Belfast for his first trip to Stormont in his new role. He left behind a growing storm of protest from furious publicans who had been expecting to reopen for business on Monday and carried out extensive and, in most cases, expensive preparation for the big event.

Did he bring a present for Arlene Foster? The First Minister and DUP leader celebrated a milestone birthday on Friday – the big Five-O. A nice parcel of drisheen from Cork would have been lovely.

Crime and time

There was a lot of sympathy for Barry Cowen among TDs from all sides when he lost his Cabinet job. Business may be business, but unless a politician is particularly unpopular, most deputies take little pleasure seeing a fellow politician enduring such a personal setback in public.

Independent TD Mattie McGrath thought the Laois-Offaly TD was harshly treated. “Deputy Cowen came into the House last week to give a profound apology for a crime he committed and that he paid the price for. He did the crime and he did the time,” said Mattie, making it sound like Barry robbed a bank.

"Now we are going to have this forensic examination – will any of us who ever robbed an orchard, are we going to be hauled before the Oireachtas for statements?"

He blamed “the parties of the left, in the main” for going after Cowen. “They were grandstanding. Grandstanding.”

Then he told the Ceann Comhairle he would be writing to him to officially complain about Mary Lou McDonald, who called him a “sleeveen” in the chamber the previous day because he hadn’t voted the same way as Sinn Féin on the proposal to haul in Barry for further questioning.

Cowen’s misfortune was Dara Calleary’s opportunity. Calleary, the man Micheál Martin selected to be his deputy leader but not a member of his cabinet, suddenly found himself in the frame again when the first-choice minister for agriculture got the push.

Divil incarnate

And the previously incandescent Fianna Fáil head honchos in Dara's home county suddenly forgot that Micheál was the divil incarnate and as welcome in Mayo as a Trump-supporting tourist from Tennessee with a bad cough.

They may love the Taoiseach now in Castlebar, but he might be wise to steer clear of Clara for the foreseeable.

Not everyone in Mayo is delighted for Dara, whose elevation further darkened the mood of former minister Michael Ring who had to witness his young Fianna Fáil rival becoming the pre-eminent TD in the county. Ringo, deeply unhappy at not landing any sort of ministry, was already complaining about the Convention Centre's suitability as a substitute parliament, citing the food offering as "substandard" in comparison with the fare in Leinster House. He also told the Ceann Comhairle in a scorcher of a letter that the use of disposable plastic cutlery in the Oireachtas canteen was an "insult" while he found it "ridiculous that we are using non-recyclable polystyrene takeaway containers to eat from. Is this what we have been reduced to?"

Michael's office in the Fine Gael rooms in Leinster House is on the third floor, where a group of party heavyweights who were dropped from Cabinet last month are now billeted. Also accommodated on what is being called "the Floor of Heartache" is Richard Bruton, Michael Creed and Charlie Flanagan.

One of them, seeing the funny side, told us they have nicknamed their quarters “God’s Waiting Room”.

Heavy breathing

With most TDs preferring to spend time in Leinster House rather than hanging around in the rather sterile and uninspiring surrounds of the Dublin Convention Centre where the Dáil has been sitting on voting days, they have to make a dash from Leinster House to the far side of the Liffey when a vote is called.

Given that the airy five-storey venue was chosen with an eye to social distancing and safe assembly, it’s not a good image to see some parliamentarians arriving for votes panting and wheezing as they try to make it into the auditorium in time to vote.

We hear that Brian Leddin, the Green Party TD for Limerick City, has cracked the cross-city voting conundrum. He's brought up his folding Brompton bike from home and is now doing the trip from Dáil to Dockside in six minutes.

Meanwhile, Oireachtas members – TDs and Senators – from Wexford held a meeting this week with representatives of refugees and asylum seekers. Independent TD Verona Murphy was among those who attended. When she arrived (Verona was booted off the FG election ticket in the wake of controversial comments about asylum seekers, which she later withdrew and apologised for) one of her erstwhile FG colleagues was heard to declare "Well, someone is definitely on the road to Damascus! "