Miriam Lord: Taoiseach and Tánaiste see red over ‘Level 5 leak’

Leo rages at public health chief; Cap’n Grealish frets about the arts; Harris and Holohan framed

Their approach to business may have been different but there was no doubt this week that the Taoiseach and Tánaiste were fuming over Sunday night’s leak of the National Public Health Emergency Team’s (Nphet) recommendation to escalate Covid-19 restrictions to full lockdown Level 5.

This shock development sparked nationwide consternation, further heightening already stretched levels of anxiety. It also left the Government flat footed and scrambling to respond in the frantic hours which followed.

Green tea Taoiseach Micheál Martin was sorely disappointed with Nphet but determined to move on in a renewed spirit of working together for the sake of the nation.

Black coffee Tánaiste Leo Varadkar was mad as hell with Nphet and made damn sure to say as much before determining to move on in a renewed spirit of working together for the sake of the nation.


A Government source was succinct in their summation of what happened from Friday “when we were told Level 3 was not warranted as the epidemiological evidence wasn’t there” through Saturday “the day they said that, with no mention of any Level 4 or 5 but just Nphet meeting because the numbers went up so much” to Sunday with “rumours in the afternoon of Level 4” and then “the Big Bang in the letter, Level 5, leaked”.

The Government – in risky but decisive display of authority – decided not to act on Nphet’s advice for now.

The Taoiseach calmly addressed the nation. “This is not about public health and businesses competing against each other, it’s about protecting lives and livelihoods. We can’t do one without the other.”

In what looked like a classic good cop, bad cop routine, the Tánaiste then appeared on RTÉ's Claire Byrne show. His appearance surprised some Government colleagues, who had assumed his absence from a simultaneous press conference with the Minister for Health was because he was on the final day of his restricted movement regime.

Then Leo turned up on the television where he filleted State chief medical officer Tony Holohan and the public health team for trying to bounce the Coaltion into measures which were "not thought through". It should have been the most jaw-drawing part of the show.

But then former Fine Gael TD and pharmacist Kate O'Connell appeared up in a corridor behind the studio brandishing a hypodermic syringe and looking like a refugee from Little House on the Prairie in an old-fashioned leg-o-mutton sleeved chintzy dress with a white pinafore over it.

She proceeded to administer the flu jab through an open car window to presenter Byrne who had just motored on to the set from nowhere before moving on with her chilling collection of syringes to inject “Bob and Renee”, two bewildered looking cast members from Fair City, sitting on a sofa in a pretend living room.

For a country living on its nerves, it was mind blowing. Thank God the off-licences are still open. At home, we were hysterically mainlining the merlot and still trying to work out what the hell had just happened when a chipper Varadkar was leaving the television building, his work done.

In accordance with protocol, Jon Williams, managing director of RTÉ News, escorted the Tánaiste through the foyer to the main door. And Leo, according to onlookers, turned to Williams: "did I go a bit too far?"

Cap’n Grealish

A rare outing for golf aficionado Noel Grealish in the Dáil on Wednesday for a debate on the impact of Covid-19 on the arts sector. Spoiler alert: it's been catastrophic.

"It has been a terrible year for people involved in the arts and the creative economy generally, with no end in sight to the suffering" said Galway West independent TD Grealish, whose main claim to fame these days is as Captain of the golf society formerly known as Oireachtas.

His other claim to fame is as the last leader of the Progressive Democrats before it disbanded. And also that unpleasantness last year when political leaders roundly condemned comments he made about African asylum seekers.

"It should have been an amazing year in Galway particularly, showcasing the best of what the region has to offer, not just in culture and arts but in the tourism offering too," he told Minister for Culture, Arts and Tourism Catherine Martin, omitting to mention Sport, which is also part of her sprawling portfolio.

Although golf outings to scenic courses would be covered under tourism. Indeed, there is still no end in sight to the suffering of one of Grealish’s “golfgate” companions, Mr Justice Séamus Woulfe.

“Of course, many events associated with Galway 2020 have gone ahead but in a very different way than had been envisualised (sic)” sighed Noel, conjuring up visions of high-level resignations, low-level demotions and ructions on Liveline.

Witness the case of his captain’s prize day at Ballyconneely Golf Links and the Station Hotel in Clifden, both venues veritable jewels in the west of Ireland’s tourism and sporting crown.

The event went ahead but not as “envisualised”. Sadly, the organisers were forced to pull a partition across the function room to divide the 80 or so golfers and guests into two together-but-apart- groups for their sit-down pandemic dinner and prize giving.

Although they slid back the partition for the duration of the speeches, obviously. Some distinguished diners, with their backs to the wall, didn’t notice the yawning gap this created and therefore remained oblivious to all the people from the same golf outing who had been dining just a few metres away on the other side.

Easily done, particularly as this second group were spirited to their tables via an elaborate series of secret underground tunnels and trapdoors not in any connected to the normal entrance. Also, they were supernaturally quiet eaters and drinkers who were far too shy to clap or laugh or even talk, never mind get up from their seats and walk to the centre of attention to receive a prize.

Surprisingly, in his Dáil rundown of major events in Galway this year which didn’t go as “had been envisualised”, Deputy Grealish forgot to mention the golf.

End of the affair? 

And the Shamelessly Butter 'Em Up award for 2020 goes to the Dublin University Law Society with its decision to nominate Simon Harris for its prestigious Trinity Praeses Elit Award.

That would be Simon Harris, the new minister in charge of universities.

“The Praeses Elit Award is given to those who have left an indelible impact in their chosen field, and who have advanced discourse and societal thought in the process.” Ah here.

Harris won’t be able to fit his head through the door with all the favourable attention he’s getting these days.

On Wednesday, he bumped into Tony Holohan walking across Merrion Square. The chief medical officer and former health minister had soldiered together throughout the difficult early days of the pandemic. Passersby were stopping to take photographs of them.

“They looked a little embarrassed, like they’d been caught having a clandestine affair” said a witness.

The Praeses Elit award was founded by Mary Robinson and past recipients include Bob Geldof, actress Sarah Rafferty, data-privacy activist Max Schrems, director Lenny Abrahamson, broadcaster Larry King, Baroness Hale, Cherie Blair, Chris Hadfield and Samantha Power.

The society wants to award the gong to Harris "not only for your admirable work as Minister for Health, exemplified by your leadership during the coronavirus pandemic" (that'll drive Stephen Donnelly mad altogether) "but for your current position as Minister for Further and Higher Education.

"Trinity Law Society and the Access to Law Programme believe that the potential for improvement in this area is huge and that there is no person more equipped than you to create an education system which is accessible to all."

Harris told a Dáil committee during the week that Ireland should “drop the snobby attitude” towards people who do not attend university, leading to the narrow belief “that everyone should be funnelled straight from secondary school into university. It’s not on and not right.”

He was struck by a recent article in The Irish Times by Trinity provost Patrick Prendergast, who wrote that university is not the be all and end all for students.

“We are obsessed with university degrees in this country. Yet university is not for everyone – that’s not an elitist view but stems from a belief that students should consider all options on their merits.

“Convincing parents and students of this will be one task for Minister Simon Harris whose new department, with its focus on further and higher education as well as science and innovation, could yet be a game changer for this country” he wrote.

Perhaps the two men can discuss the issue further next week when Harris picks up his award at a ceremony which will be livestreamed on Facebook.

Ginsburg remembered

The recent death of US supreme court judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg prompted some older hands in the law library here to revisit the legendary RBG's remarks during her 1993 Senate confirmation hearing in Washington DC.

“Federal judges may long outlast the president who appoints them. They may serve as long as they can do the job. As the constitution says, they may remain in office during good Behaviour.” Supreme court justices, most notably, participate in shaping a lasting body of constitutional decisions.

“They continuously confront matters on which the framers left things unsaid, unsettled, or uncertain. For that reason, when the Senate considers a supreme court nomination, the senators are properly concerned about the nominee’s capacity to serve the nation, not just for the here and now, but over the long term.”

She added "As for my own deportment or, in the constitution's words, good behaviour, I prize advice received on this nomination from a dear friend, Frank Griffin, a recently retired Justice of the Supreme Court of Ireland.

Justice Griffin wrote: “Courtesy to and consideration for one’s colleagues, the legal profession, and the public are among the greatest attributes a judge can have.”

Apparently RBG met the late Frank Griffin when on an American Bar Association trip across the Atlantic. The two lawyers stayed in contact; Frank was known as a great writer of letters.

A few years after her appointment Bader-Ginsburg came to Ireland and Gerard Griffin, Frank's son, who is now a Circuit Court judge, hosted a dinner for her in the Law Society.

Many years on, her words were being read with great interest in the Four Courts as the briefs await news of our newest Supreme Court judge’s fate.