Miriam Lord: Taoiseach issues most vicious threat - banning doughnuts
Questions over photographs of aspiring TDs clustering around a Minister in the hope of electoral jamminess rubbing off
The Taoiseach went after the doughnuts - not the sugary confections filed under “comestibles” but the sugary confections filed under “communications”. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins
It was during lunch hour, with the sum total of three people in the chamber, when the Taoiseach suggested banning doughnuts.
Just as well only Micheál and Mary Lou were there to hear Leo Varadkar say it. As party leaders, they can take the hard knocks. But nonetheless, this was one of the most vicious threats ever issued by a Taoiseach on the floor of the Dáil.
Had Leo thrown out his callous proposal an hour or so earlier, when the place was well-populated by Ministers, potential ministers and backbenchers of every hue, he might have had a riot on his hands.
As for the Seanad. Dear God, one can only imagine the reaction had word of this outrage reached the Upper House. What? No doughnuts? Not even for the partially rehabilitated hoping to return to the Dáil at the next election?
They would have burned Leinster House down, and the National Museum with it, because the Senators are currently lodging in its adjacent Ceramics Room while their usual talking shop is getting done up.
The incident happened during Taoiseach’s Questions, when Leo deals with queries relevant to his department submitted in advance by the other party leaders. Where he has been, what he has done, who he’s been hanging out with in Brussels, where he is going on his holidays, what’s his favourite Michael Bublé track, that sort of thing.
Campaign for Leo
The old chestnut of Government spending on PR and spin rolled around again. This time, the cost of maintaining social media accounts for the various arms of Government were under the spotlight. Micheál and Mary Lou went through the usual stages of concern and incredulity, but it such a dull session even they couldn’t manage a modicum of outrage.
The Fianna Fáil leader tried to channel a bit of the “Crooked Hillary” personal emails controversy by introducing the Taoiseach’s Twitter account.
“Is there a difference with promoting Government campaigns and personal messages from you, or are they treated the same?” he asked. “It’s interesting your twitter handle is still @campaignforleo, which really is a political slogan. Have you plans to change that in terms of the office of the Taoiseach?”
Not a hope. He loves that Twitter account.
“It’s mine. I own it. And all the posts are either done by me or in conjunction with two political staff - not civil servants.”
Eventually, the Sinn Féin leader hit upon a possible controversy, one which rivals the last controversy which saw the disbandment of the Government’s much-vaunted Strategic Communications Unit. One of the reasons for its demise was allegations that Fine Gael was featuring election candidates in official Government photographs.
She held up a picture which accompanied an article on the recent launch of the Fund for Urban Regeneration and Development. It showed the Taoiseach and four Government Ministers at the launch and, “lo and behold, standing alongside and smiling for the camera is a Fine Gael Senator and election candidate for Mayo”.
Why was a party colleague and election candidate (Michelle Mulherin) standing in a photo with Ministers involved in the announcement? “What was that all about?” Mary Lou asked.
Perhaps the Taoiseach might like to explain.
“I will check into that. I will have that taken down,” promised Leo, adding he didn’t know what website it was on.
“Merrionstreet.ie,” chipped in Mary Lou.
Then the Taoiseach went after the doughnuts - not the sugary confections filed under “comestibles” but the sugary confections filed under “communications”. These are those saccharine photographs of aspiring TDs, who have nothing to do with the event in question, clustering doughnut-like around a member of Government in the hope that some electoral jamminess will rub off on them.
Party allegiance is no barrier to the wannabees, who just want their faces in the picture when a big announcement is made.
Leo turned to the doughnutting question. “I do think we need to be realistic about this. TDs and Senators who are not Ministers, including those from the Opposition, you know, they turn up at Government announcements…”
“If invited,” muttered Micheál, sulkily.
“…as do candidates,” Leo continued. “I am not really sure. I think it might be overkill for me to issue an instruction that anybody who is not a Minister, including yourselves, be airbrushed out of any photographs that appear on Government websites.”
Airbrushed out? Out-out-out of all the photographs, like? Even for the local papers, like? Martin and McDonald blanched.
Leo began pondering the issue himself, having once been a committed doughnuteer before he graduated to being the hole.
“I think that would be overkill,” he said to Mary Lou, who had gone very quiet. “I don’t, in fairness, think that’s what you’re suggesting.”
“No,” she murmured, as Micheál sat in petrified silence.
“But if we were to take what you are claiming to its natural extension…what you would want us to do would be to airbrush out from any photograph on merrionstreet.ie - or any Government website - any pictures of people who are not Ministers, including yourselves…I just think that would be overkill.”
He got no argument from the other two on that front.
“But I appreciate you need to find something to raise and I will certainly look into that,” concluded the Taoiseach, with no intention of doing any such thing.
His own troops would murder him, if the others didn’t get there first.
Later on during Taoiseach’s Questions, there might have been another bombshell moment were it not for context.
Leo Varadkar, still in the twin and only presence of Micheál and Mary Lou, had a major outbreak of what seemed like humility and contrition when he apologised for possibly causing offence to some people by appearing to be “snide or sarcastic”.
He has been particularly mean to Mary Lou McDonald of late while and he hasn’t been adverse to taking the occasional swipe at Micheál Martin, his Confidence and Supply partner, either.
However, the Taoiseach wasn’t talking about his recent performances at Leaders’ Questions, when he has been in particularly robust form. Instead, he was directing his comments north of the border.
“In relation to Unionist fears - I’m not trying to soothe them but I am trying to understand. Even if you don’t agree with somebody, understanding where they come from is a benefit,” he said during a discussion about the Brexit deal.
He mentioned his meeting on Monday with the Grand Master of the Orange Order, Mervyn Gibson, along with Orangemen from the Border counties.
“One thing that the Grand Master said to me was that when I used the term “precious union” in this Chamber last week, that was picked up in Northern Ireland, and perhaps in the UK, as being in some way being snide or sarcastic. That was not my intention whatsoever,” he said.
“When I used the term “precious union” in this Chamber, I did so quoting Arlene Foster because she often refers to the precious union and I quoted it in an attempt to demonstrate that I understand how precious the union is to unionists and how important their British identity is to them.
And I said it and quoted it in an attempt to demonstrate that I was listening, that I understood the unionists regard the union to be precious. I didn’t mean it in any way to cause offence or to be sarcastic or snide, and I am happy to clarify that.”
Northern papers please copy.