Miriam Lord: Taoiseach a strange hybrid of Tommy Cooper and Cork

Too much to expect Micheál Martin to conduct Leaders’ Questions wearing great entertainer’s trademark red fez

The Taoiseach  wasn’t wearing Cooper’s trademark red fez on his head, but by summoning the spirit of the great entertainer he created a mental image some of us can never erase. Photograph: iStock

The Taoiseach wasn’t wearing Cooper’s trademark red fez on his head, but by summoning the spirit of the great entertainer he created a mental image some of us can never erase. Photograph: iStock

 

And then there was the day Micheál Martin compared Sinn Féin to the long dead British comedian, Tommy Cooper.

Nobody was expecting that.

But the Taoiseach, out of the blue, treated the Dáil to a blast of good old Tommy’s famous catchphrase: “Just like that!”

Not once, but three times. Unfortunately, he couldn’t do justice to the celebrated entertainer – Micheál’s delivery went down like a lead balloon while his allusion soared over most of the Shinner heads across the floor.

It is well known that Micheál fancies himself as a bit of a mimic. His attempt at a Chinese accent during a tech industry event a decade ago was so well received he had to issue an apology afterwards. But on Wednesday, he chickened out of doing a proper impression of the butter-fingered magician and comedy master. Where was the bumbling, mumbling voice? He barely attempted the famous hand actions.

This came as a crushing disappointment to Micheál’s older listeners, the only ones who knew who he was banging on about.

Obviously, it would have been too much to expect the Taoiseach to conduct Leaders’ Questions wearing Cooper’s trademark red fez on his head, but by summoning the spirit of the great entertainer he created a mental image some of us can never erase.

Tommy died 37 years ago during a live television performance. Were he alive today he would be 100 years old.

The youthful political correspondents were stumped. By the look of the slack-jawed Shinners staring back blankly at the Taoiseach, they hadn’t a clue what he was on about either.

Blind-sided by the zeitgeist.

Housing niggle-fest

The comedian, hugely popular in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s, bizarrely made his posthumous debut on the Dáil record during a routine housing niggle-fest between Micheál and Sinn Féin president, Mary Lou McDonald.

Yet again, she lambasted his “failing” Coalition’s “failing” housing policy which is heading towards “serious catastrophe”. For any government with “an ounce of cop-on, alarm bells would be ringing very loudly. Instead, we get deafening silence, heads stuck in the sand, no urgency to respond, no forward-thinking, and, frankly, no common sense.”

Yet again, he lambasted Sinn Féin for voting against housing proposals at local level; 5,000 of them in Dublin including 853 social, affordable and cost-rental homes at the Oscar Traynor Road site. “I see a lot of sloganeering, sound bites and nice catchy phrases, but I don’t see real substance from a policy perspective.”

Whatever he proposes, it is never enough for Mary Lou and Sinn Féin.

When his Government says it can realistically provide up to 12,000 affordable houses next year, 10,000 of which will be directly built through local authorities or approved housing bodies, Sinn Féin has a stock response.

“You just come along and say ‘Aah, we think that should be 20,000’.”

For some odd reason, Micheál resorted to the days of old-fashioned variety shows to explain his point.

“Like Tommy Cooper long ago: ‘Just like that’. You know?”

You wha, Micheál?

He threw out one hand, but it was nothing to match the shoulders hunched, arms half-extended, palms-down shuffle that Tommy used to do.

But the show must go on.

“Just like that! We’ll make it 20,000,” he exclaimed in a strange hybrid of Cooper meets Cork.

Mary Lou didn’t even look at him.

“If the Minister says 4,000 in respect of affordable housing – just like that! – we’ll make it 8,000, Sinn Féin will say.” The Taoiseach plucked something imaginary from the air, perhaps a hard-boiled egg from behind young Jack Chambers’s ear.

As for the youthful chief whip, sitting behind his boss? Not a breeze.

No, concluded Micheál of Sinn Féin’s “threadbare” housing policy. “No substance behind it. It’s just empty rhetoric, as far as I can see.”

As usual, the exchanges descended into a shouting match.

“Could we all make a Christmas resolution to behave with a bit of decorum, please?” pleaded the Ceann Comhairle, and him still recovering from the Covid.

Leaders’ questions moved on. To the Covid, not surprisingly.

Booster confusion

Catherine Murphy of the Social Democrats brought up the confusion in the booster vaccination campaign. Many people were annoyed when the Taoiseach complained in the Dáil on Tuesday about people not turning up for their appointments. Catherine Murphy pointed out, not unreasonably, that they feel he was unfairly blaming them for the situation when the truth is that the booking system is all over the place.

What had the Taoiseach to say about this?

“Last night I slept like a log. I woke up in the fireplace.”

Really?

“I sleep like a baby. Every morning I wake up screaming around 2 o’clock.”

Tell us more.

“I worry that as soon as I get into bed I drop off. I better order a bigger bed.”

Sorry. That wasn’t Micheál’s reply. That’s a bit of Tommy Cooper. Blame the Taoiseach for sending us to look up some of his old gags.

Where the Government’s handling of the pandemic response is concerned, the Opposition’s watchword has always mirrored another one of Tommy’s famous catchphrases.

“Not like that, Taoiseach. Like that.”

Mattie McGrath returned to active service after a few months’ absence with his views on the “draconian powers” adopted by Government during the pandemic unchanged. He still believes the requirement to produce digital passes to gain access to certain services and events is a form of “medical apartheid”.

Independent Catherine Connolly was also concerned about the renewed temporary Covid laws infringing on civil liberties.

The Taoiseach put up a strong, if weary, defence.

Protecting lives

A government needs to be “nimble” about introducing legislation to protect lives during a pandemic, he told Mattie. “It’s not the kind of legislation any government wants to bring in. Why would we want to bring in legislation that restricts normal life? There’s no joy in doing that.”

As any politician knows “it’s not the most popular thing in the world to be restricting people’s personal liberties and freedom”.

Likewise to Catherine Murphy: People are fed up with the pandemic. The restrictions are weighing heavy on people. Younger people are particularly fed up.

“But those in the engine room have to keep going to help people. I say again, what is the most fundamental human right of all? It’s to protect life and limb.”

Meanwhile, the hip young things of the Fianna Fáil Comms team were busy on social media with their leader’s finger-on-the pulse reference to the late Tommy Cooper.

They quickly posted clips from his Dáil performance on Twitter and YouTube (labelled as a “Must Watch”). Micheál must be delighted. We hear he was boasting that not only is he up on the Tweet machine and the Tube, but that he is probably up on Snaptoc, facetic and the InstantGran too.

Just like that.