Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl is the Paschal Donohoe of the Dáil stopwatch.
If he were given to Paschal-like declarations, his catchphrase would be “I only have so much time to go around, thank you very much”.
Trying to keep windbag TDs in check is a tough job for the chair. In trying to uphold the daily timetable, often damage limitation is the best he can do.
As questions to the Taoiseach drew to a close on Wednesday, the Ceann Comhairle informed Mary Lou McDonald she had 20 seconds to put the question she tabled on the workings of the Parliamentary Liaison Unit (whatever that is).
She ditched the questions but grabbed the time.
“There’s not much you can do in 20 seconds,” chuckled the Sinn Féin leader. “But I might take it anyway.”
Whereupon she launched into the closing act from her one-woman performance of Withering Heights.
Mary Lou ended her afternoon the way she started: by snippily heaping more scorn upon the Taoiseach and his very trenchantly stated promise to tackle the housing crisis, his Government’s “number one priority”.
When she wasn’t delivering lines dripping in sarcasm, she was heckling from the wings, peppering his pronouncements with snarky asides.
The final scene was, supposedly, the big twist. The bit where the Sinn Féin leader would catch out the Fianna Fail leader for accusing her party of voting against major housing developments (Micheál Martin named four of them) by revealing how some councillors from his own party had voted against one of those schemes.
So, she was taking the 20 seconds “just to inform the Taoiseach, because he may not know, that his Fianna Fáil colleagues on Dublin City Council voted against the Oscar Traynor proposal because it was flawed.”
Rabbit from a hat
This information was produced like a rabbit from a hat at the end of two days of the Taoiseach asking why Sinn Féin shot down so many “shovel-ready” building projects at a time when housing stock is urgently needed in large quantities.
“I have to break it to the Taoiseach, you see, the days of gifting vast swathes of public land to private developers are over, as far as we are concerned. I had hoped, given the experience that we’ve had of boom and bust and the hardship that’s emanated from a broken housing market, that you would also have learned that lesson,” sniffed Mary Lou.
“But some of your councillors have, so sure, who knows, there’s hope for you yet,” she murmured, having long abandoned any attempt to hide her disdain for every word coming from the Taoiseach’s mouth.
And in the same way, he couldn’t hide his anger at her attitude and dismissive responses.
But what does the head of Government expect from the leader of the main Opposition party in the midst of a very real crisis for an entire generation of people, seemingly powerless and at the mercy of rapacious investment funds intent on scooping up their dreams of owning a home?
Maybe a little respect.
The contribution from Social Democrat co-leader Catherine Murphy was no less critical and suspicious of the Taoiseach and his Government’s intentions, while not doubting his undoubted bona fides. But her anger over how the housing situation has spiralled into such a mess was accompanied by measured questions and understandable concern.
She didn’t feel the need to punctuate his replies to her questions with repeated harrumphs of “disgraceful”.
He needs to adopt an “interventionist approach” to curbing the march of these “cuckoo” companies, said the Kildare TD. “That’s the one thing that the global funds fear.” And what about apartments, which they are buying up wholesale, are they not people’s home too?
Again, as he did all afternoon, Micheál Martin insisted the Government is taking an interventionist approach. “Be in no doubt that, right now, the Government is the biggest player. The problem is supply.”
Catherine told him straight. “Taoiseach, I think if there wasn’t a pandemic there would be boots on the street. There would be people on the street protesting.”
She’s probably right too.
Richard Boyd Barrett told him he must be “living in a parallel universe” if he thinks his plans for affordable housing are realistic.
The Taoiseach repeatedly stressed he believes in social and public housing. He wants people to be able to own their own homes. He said again and again that his Ministers are “dealing” with the issue of the cuckoo funds.
“I am not interested in the ideological battles on the margins,” he told RBB, dismissing his response to the housing shortage as “just objecting, objecting, objecting every time you have the chance”.
In what might have been his most ambitious promise of all, Micheál declared: “We must activate the councils.” He also said he would be impressing on his party’s local councillors that “they don’t have the luxury of opposing housing projects that are shovel-ready.”
Talk is fine, but where are the actual plans? Mary Lou McDonald wanted to know when legislation to prevent bulk buying of homes will be enacted and tax breaks ended.
“When will we see action?”
It’s already happening, said the Taoiseach, citing the €3.3 billion allocated for house construction this year and the start of the largest building plan in the history of the State.
Yet again, he declared: “The biggest actor in the housing market now is this Government.”
Mary Lou rolled her eyes.
“God help us,” she sighed theatrically.
When he told RBB that funding was not the only factor in delivering affordable housing but that “initiatives” were also needed around it, she dismissively drawled: “Yes. Initiatives.”
She told him to “actually study” the findings of bodies such as NESC and the ERSI and other experts in the field and to listen to the generation locked out of home ownership, “many of them falling into homelessness and ‘generation rent’, as they’re called”.
And he should “replace the kind of soundbite hostility and almost glib attitude that you adopt, and work instead for the kind of fundamental transformation that we need”.
Soundbite hostility? Glib attitude?
In that case, at the very least you’d have to say there’s a pair of them in it.
The Taoiseach was robustly fighting his corner.
“I believe in a very strong social housing programme and always have done because, historically, my party always built substantial social housing. It was a raison d’etre for the party in the 1930s and right through the 1960s and 1970s. I believe passionately in providing social housing for people and I am determined that we do it.”
He has staked everything on delivering.
“I am very clear that we need to get projects that are shovel-ready off the ground and we need to get them built,” he said for the umpteenth time.
Cue more noises off from Mary Lou.
“Well, get cracking so.”
Micheál Martin couldn’t hide his frustration at what he sees is a lack of co-operation from all quarters to move on this crisis.
“So let’s put the ideology to one side and get houses built! On a number of fronts! That’s what we need to do!” he cried, sounding like Roy Keane at half-time during a bad game.
Bríd Smith of People Before Profit had her own theory on the exploits of the investment funds. She wondered why there is such “paralysis” and “lethargy” in moving on the cosseted companies.
“I believe that you’re very worried about spooking the cuckoo.”