Miriam Lord: Taoiseach’s patience snaps as Mary Lou plays the elitism card

Good news about Robert Watt’s salary sustains us through bitter rows in the Dáil

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has told Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald he had a “far different” upbringing to her during testy exchanges in the Dáil. Video: Oireachtas TV

 

Ding-Dong! Mary Lou on high (horse).

Micheál’s ears are ringing.

Maybe a bit late for a Christmas carol, but old scores were all the rage in the Dáil on Wednesday, where rage was also all the rage.

But before we get to that, how about some good news?

For in the midst of vicious exchanges on the housing crisis between the Taoiseach and the leader of Sinn Féin, there came confirmation from a gilded bunker in Baggot Street which gladdened hearts all across the land.

Robert Watt, the Generous Salary, sorry, general secretary of the Department of Health, is now happily restored to optimum pay (nearly €295,000).

This emerged in a one-line statement from his department: “The secretary general has confirmed that he is in receipt of the full salary for his role.”

Oh, thank God.

After a couple of gentle whacks from Darragh O’Brien and Heather Humphreys, The Generous Salary revealed he is now accepting his full whack

Having previously waived the €81,000 pay rise he was due upon moving from the Department of Public Expenditure to his current berth, the civil servant recently refused to tell the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee if this was still the case. Pointed remarks about transparency from two senior Government Ministers this week may have forced a change of heart.

Because after a couple of gentle whacks from Darragh O’Brien and Heather Humphreys, The Generous Salary revealed he is now accepting his full whack.

Word came through around midday, after a Labour Party motion on spiralling inflation and the soaring cost of living had given way to a rancorous clash on affordable rents.

It lifted the spirits of our post-pandemic inflation nation.

Shouting match

The news sustained us through the bitter row over housing during Leaders’ Questions and helped us recover from an angry shouting match between Michael Healy-Rae and the Labour Party which took place just before.

There is always an edge to the exchanges between Micheál Martin and Mary Lou McDonald, with the Taoiseach constantly annoyed by the Sinn Féin leader’s attempts to box him off as a supporter and enabler of billionaire property developers while he tries to explain what his Government is doing to tackle the crisis he repeatedly calls “the single most important issue facing our country at this moment in time”.

Mary Lou has the justifiable anger and frustration of shut-out buyers and stressed-out renters on her side. She has an arsenal of harrowing anecdotes to draw upon. She has Eoin Ó Broin to throw his book at him. She has the entire dysfunctional mess of the property market for ammunition.

Go fix it, she tells the Taoiseach. Fix it now. Do something. Do something now.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin: Not up for a lecture. Photograph: Julien Behal
Taoiseach Micheál Martin: Not up for a lecture. Photograph: Julien Behal

He outlines the projects and schemes under way. He talks about the biggest house-building programme in the history of the State. Record “commencements”. Billions being spent. Construction bouncing back. “The momentum, as it were, is in the pipeline.”

But it needs time and “a whole-of-government approach” and cross-party buy-in.

Mary Lou McDonald gets to her feet.

“So, you failed,” she tells him. “Let me help you, Taoiseach, to try and absorb the reality.” She holds up a photocopied page showing an advert for a flat to rent. Mad money. “So, this is a storage room . . .” she begins, before producing two more pages of equally dismal places for rent.

Converted hallway

One in Cork where “you could touch your fridge if you stretch your feet out of your bed” and a converted hallway in Dublin going for €910 a month.

“That’s probably a snip, in your mind.”

Micheál winced.

But she wasn’t finished with him yet.

She had shown him the reality for Generation Rent. “Don’t you dare talk to me about false narratives or claim that you understand the crisis. You clearly don’t. While you’re there scratching your head I’ve told you two things you can do that will work . . .”

If he does them, people might believe “that you finally get it”.

Sinn Féin TDs cheered their leader as she resumed her seat.

The Taoiseach rose, clearly annoyed by the personal nature of the attack. So he took the personal route too, stung by her parting shot that he doesn’t “get it”.

“You paint a narrative in terms of me” – he pointed to himself – “as being divorced from reality and all of that.”

Across the floor the TDs couldn’t resist. “You are! You are!” they chorused.

He put up a hand to silence them. “Okay. I just want to say to you, deputy, my background and where I grew up and what we had to put up with is far different to yours.”

The heckling grew in intensity and the back-and-forth became more and more bitter, Eoin Ó Broin and Pearse Doherty joining Mary Lou in the fray

The Taoiseach was leaning forward, directly addressing his opposite number. He didn’t raise his voice but his anger was evident in those clipped, level tones.

A few dissenting voices rose up. Again, his hand went up to quell them. He wanted to make his point, which he did, eyes still locked on his political rival.

“Don’t you dare lecture me,” he said slowly. “Okay?”

Bus driver

There was a sense of an old score being settled here by a man frustrated and totally fed up by the constant inferences that he is a heartless member of some detached, moneyed elite. Micheál Martin, the son of a bus driver from Cork city, who believes he incorporates the decent values of old Fianna Fáil, had had enough.

“I understand the realities of life as well as anybody in this House. And I don’t pretend to understand it more,” he said as the heckling grew in intensity and the back-and-forth became more and more bitter, Eoin Ó Broin and Pearse Doherty joining Mary Lou in the fray.

Still angry, the Taoiseach accused Sinn Féin of talking from both sides of its mouth and exploiting the crisis for political gain.

“This crisis is too big for politics,” he said.

Mary Lou McDonald shot over a pitiful eye, batting his words away with a dismissive hand as if speaking to a difficult child.

“Stop that. Stop that. Stop that,” she repeated. “Stop now.”

Pearse Doherty continued barracking.

“Deputy, you are not the leader. You were not appointed by the Politburo,” snarled Micheál.

“So just BACK OFF!”

The Taoiseach’s unusual reaction was understandable – there is a definite element of playing the man and not the ball to Mary Lou’s approach, but when the Ceann Comhairle called time, one suspects Sinn Féin will have been far more satisfied with their afternoon’s work.

Earlier in the day, it was Independent TD Michael Healy-Rae who took the chance to settle an old score. Last year, after lambasting the Labour Party for its lack of affinity with the plain people of Ireland, the Kerry businessman was badly roughed up by the party’s new deputy for Fingal, Duncan Smith.

“I’m not going to be lectured on understanding workers. I do not have to put on a political costume and a caricature to pretend I am working class, like some,” Smith told the Healy-Rae brothers during his excoriating contribution.

Cost of living

So, when Labour brought forward a motion on the rising cost of living, Michael saw his chance to get one back for the team.

“The people who are moving the motion are the people who wanted to put a water tax on everybody in this country and said they’d turn off the water if they did not pay the tax. These are the people who did away with the death grant; you attacked every woman in this country; you did away with their pensions; you hurt them beyond belief.”

A noisy shouting match ensued between MHR and the Labour duo of Brendan Howlin and Jed Nash.

Michael repeatedly asked Howlin to shut up. He said Howlin and his crowd are nothing like the “old Labour” they once had in Kerry, people like Breeda Moynihan-Cronin and the Spring family. There were “good people”.

“You’re a disgrace,” shouted Howlin.

“And you’re a scandal,” shouted Healy-Rae.

This has the makings of an excellent feud.

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