Miriam Lord: TDs fume as Antigen 4 All in the Dáil gets noses out of joint

Elsewhere this week, Bertie Ahern’s comments on the North go completely south

Antigen 4 All in the Dáil?

Blindsided TDs couldn’t believe their ears.

They've been getting it in the neck since Thursday from outraged constituents and are furious with the Leinster House authorities, however well-intentioned, for dropping them in it. "Their decision to provide free antigen test kits to everyone who works in the Oireachtas was the most tin-eared and selfish thing to do. We'll be explaining 'til the cows come home that we had nothing to do with this but people won't believe us," said a Government TD on Friday, resigned to a weekend of complaints.

“It was like a North Korean rocket launch – indiscriminate damage everywhere. What the hell did they think they were doing?”

The furore over the freebies detonated at lunchtime on Thursday following the weekly meeting of the Dáil’s Business Committee, which sits to discuss and agree the working schedule of the House for the coming week.

At the end of the meeting, which was conducted remotely, the members were told about the imminent provision of free antigen tests to the Leinster House “community”. The Ceann Comhairle introduced a senior civil servant who explained why and what would happen.

At this stage the meeting was “in wrapping up mode” with a number of committee members, including two of the three Government whips, having already logged off and others preparing to do the same. “Some were only half-listening,” said a source.

The details on the free antigen tests were for information purposes and were outside the remit of the committee. There were no votes or formal decisions involved.

A number of TDs, among them Independent Mattie McGrath and Duncan Smith of Labour, responded by expressing strong reservations at politicians getting free test kits when the Government was expecting members of the public to pay for their own.

However, they were informed the kits were already ordered and expected and would be available “for all staff and members [TDs and Senators]” on a voluntary basis.

“We were told it was the reasonable thing to do in terms of looking out for staff and setting a good example for other employers. This might be reasonable in the context of a normal workplace, but this is not a normal workplace,” said a committee member. “The political atmosphere around antigen testing available is toxic at the moment, so the timing was incredible.”

Another member said there was no mention that elected representatives would have to pay for their kits. “Quite the opposite. No. Our understanding was we were all going to get them for free, despite reservations.”

Word of the decision leaked within minutes of the meeting ending. It wasn’t long before journalists had it. The Government whips got wind of the word. “S**t. Did they really mean that?” was one reaction. The whips lashed out a joint statement and emailed it to Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl, stressing that their parties would pay for supplies used by their members and staff.

Gary Gannon of the Social Democrats, meanwhile, robustly challenged Ó Fearghaíl in the Dáil over the move on the test kits. The Ceann Comhairle was highly indignant and said Gannon's information was untrue, but he couldn't say how TDs would be facilitated to pay.

You should have seen the huddles of shocked TDs and Senators in the members' bar at lunchtime. So much for social distancing

Meanwhile, the Green Party whip Marc Ó Cathasaigh was “in like Flynn” to the chamber with the joint statement, which he read to the Ceann Comhairle from his phone.

TDs reported their phones going non-stop after the story went public, and from Government Ministers down, they went on a damage limitation offensive.

Not much more than half an hour after Antigen 4 All in the Dáil hit the fan, the Oireachtas officially tweeted that the tests were not free to TDs and Senators, but only to Oireachtas staff.

Which begs the question: why did three Government whips go into panic mode after the meeting, urgently demanding to pay for their tests, if they weren’t getting them for free?

“You should have seen the huddles of shocked TDs and Senators in the members’ bar at lunchtime. So much for social distancing, they were furious. Nobody wants to know that this was a civil service decision. But we’re all getting flack now, not just the Government,” said one source.

This explains the angry reaction from Deputies on all sides. Sinn Féin's Pearse Doherty spoke of the unfairness of "a situation where there will be free antigen tests for Deputies, Senators, Ministers, and staff in this House". He later issued a statement welcoming "the decision by the Oireachtas to abandon plans" to give politicians free antigen tests.

But hot on its heels came another Sinn Féin tweet: “Government forced to do U-turn on FREE antigen tests for politicians.”

As Pearse correctly observed, it had nothing to do with the Government, a member of which remarked when rapid clarification arrived from the civil service: "The greatest climbdown since Neil Armstrong descended the ladder."

Paint the town red

The young comrades of the Communist Party were surprised last weekend when Labour Party leader Alan Kelly dropped into their famous bookshop, Connolly Books, in Temple Bar. (Hurrah for Google Maps!)

Had AK47 finally decided to go completely red? Maybe he was on the lookout for some novelty Christmas gifts – a nice signed copy of Marx’s Communist Manifesto for under the tree?

In fact, Kelly had slipped out from the opening night of his party’s annual conference in the Mansion House for the Dublin launch of his old friend and former special adviser Liam Cahill’s new book From Suir to Jarama: Mossie Quinlan’s Life and Legacy. The book combines rigorous historical research with a light writing style to tell the story of a young Irish man’s heroic service with the Fifteenth International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.

One of Kelly's predecessors, Dick Spring – as minister for foreign affairs – in 1994 worked closely with the then Spanish Socialist prime minister, Felipe González, to ensure the respectful reinterment of 5,000 of the fallen of Jarama in a cemetery near the battlefield, after the Franco regime had dumped them on a rubbish heap.

Back in 1944, a frenetic purge of "Reds" in the Labour Party in Cork resulted in the expulsion of the leading Irish International Brigade volunteer, Michael O'Riordan. In 2002, this was reversed when the then party leader, Ruairi Quinn, invited Comrade O'Riordan to address the Labour party conference and gave him a written apology for his expulsion many years previously.

There was a good union turnout at the launch, including Seamus Dooley of the NUJ, Eoin Ronayne of the biggest public sector union Fórsa, Moira Leydon of the ASTI and John Swift of the Musicians' Union of Ireland. Also there was Seán Edwards (son of International Brigader Frank Edwards) and Ronan Carrigy (grandson of Frank Edwards).

North comments go south

Bertie Ahern landed himself in hot water with unionist politicians on Thursday when he said loyalists living in Belfast "ghettos" and "the areas where you are likely to get trouble" don't understand how the Brexit deal works in Northern Ireland.

Coincidentally, about the same time Bertie was addressing the contentious Northern Ireland protocol issue at an online conference, one of his successors was commenting in the Seanad on the need for dialogue and mutual understanding between the two northern traditions.

Micheál Martin spoke about needing to improve their listening skills so they can put themselves in what they “perceive to be the other side’s position, understanding where they are coming from and they, too, understanding where we are coming from, and being able to work out a shared future”.

He gave an example from nearly 30 years ago when he went to Corrymeela peace and reconciliation centre in Ballycastle, Co Antrim, with about a dozen backbench TDs and senators. His group included another future taoiseach, Enda Kenny.

In the biggest disappointment of the week, Micheál (who has form on mimicking) decided not to imitate Paisley's voice

A similar group of unionist politicians attended. "The DUP were going to participate at the time but the late Ian Paisley, God be good to him, pulled them at the last minute, as we know, to undermine the official unionists who were there," recalled the Taoiseach.

"So while I was in Ian Paisley's constituency, he was thundering on the RTÉ News at One about the disgrace that Dermot Ahern and Micheál Martin were in his very constituency."

In the biggest disappointment of the week, Micheál (who has form when it comes to mimicking people) decided not to imitate Paisley’s voice. “I won’t take him off or anything like that.”

Spoilsport.

“During the weekend, we learned so much about each other. I’ll always remember – I’ve said this before – we were asked by the facilitators – who were Quakers, I think– to ‘put up on the blackboard everything you think about unionism’.”

Looking back on it, the Taoiseach wasn’t impressed by their efforts. “What we put up was fairly, eh, it wasn’t good, okay?” It was so bad one of the backbenchers quipped: “Can we get out of here? Just give us five minutes to get out of here before they see what we have written about them.”

Meanwhile, the unionist representatives were doing a similar exercise in the other room.

“We compared notes. They thought the parish priest wrote my speeches, and that was their perception of the politics in the South. Not true, by the way, just to make it very clear.

“And one of ours said that unionists don’t smile. You know, literally the gap between understanding was so wide . . . over time we gained confidence.”

These types of encounters achieve things, he said. “I know that individual Senators and TDs here have been up and down meeting different groups of people, gaining confidence in one another’s company, but also understanding the pressures they are under.

“I mean, the resolution of the protocol issue is about that same exercise.”

Keeping the recovery going

Bríd Smith of Solidarity-People Before Profit has been hobbling around the Dáil on crutches since the end of the summer recess. She caught her foot under a step, twisted it and broke a few bones.

She is not alone, finding a kindred spirit in Minister of State Hildegarde Naughton, who is similarly spancilled.

The Galway West TD tells us that she aggravated an old injury after completing the 100km in 30 days running challenge in June. Two weeks after taking part in the charity fundraiser for breast cancer, Hildegarde was working at her laptop when she felt an excruciating pain and couldn’t put her foot on the ground.

She went to hospital and underwent surgery.

Hildegarde and Bríd, both of whom has been in plaster for weeks, hope to be skipping around Leinster House again in a week or two.

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