It's been like living through the opening scenes of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory this week in Leinster House, with a cast of increasingly forlorn Charlie and Charlene Buckets haunting the precincts in search of a Golden Ticket. The Taoiseach's 40th birthday bash is on Saturday night.
It's 24 hours too late, but Friday was a working day. He spent the morning touring primary schools in north Co Dublin with local TD Alan Farrell, collecting birthday cakes everywhere he went.
In the afternoon, he was in Ballymun with TD Noel Rock, where he got four more birthday cakes. We’re not sure what the atmosphere was like between Leo and his two deputies, but perhaps not as warm as usual.
His much-anticipated 40th celebration has left quite a few members of his parliamentary party bereft. This is because the guest list is rather small, leaving some feeling highly insulted because they didn’t make the cut.
Olfactory organs are considerably out of joint. The venue for Leo’s party is a closely guarded secret. Guests swear they have not been told the location and that the Taoiseach’s partner Matt will inform them where to go at the very last minute via the special WhatsApp group set up for the occasion.
'Talk about rubbing our noses in it,' sniffed one Fine Gaelbackbencher, whose nose is so out of joint it's vanished up his ear
On Friday afternoon, the chosen few were informed that they will be partying in Dublin city centre. This WhatsApp group has caused consternation. It was set up a couple of weeks ago by Leo himself, who picked more than 30 names to go in his group. Naturally, they all presumed they’d be in on the birthday bash. In the meantime, they were told that cardiac surgeon Matt would be organising things.
Then, last weekend, individual invites were sent to some, but not all members of the group. This meant that people who didn’t get a Golden Ticket were able to see the ones who did, and vice versa.
"Talk about rubbing our noses in it," sniffed one Fine Gael backbencher, whose nose couldn't possibly have been rubbed in anything. At this stage, it's so out of joint it's vanished up his ear. Not that anyone really cares, of course. This is the Taoiseach's birthday and he can pass them by if he wants to.
Really, it’s cool. Or at least it was, until emotions got the better of some on Monday night after the parliamentary party’s pre-season think-in dinner in Fire restaurant. A group then repaired to nearby Kehoe’s pub for a nightcap.
Talk soon turned to the WhatsApp group, and soon turned bitter, as names were traded of those who had and hadn’t been invited. With a few drinks on board, the real feelings about Leo’s birthday list came out, with one politician reportedly bursting into tears at being snubbed in such an unfair and hurtful manner.
There were dark mutterings from some who had believed, or felt they had been led to believe, they were closer to Varadkar than now seems the case. It didn’t soothe ruffled feathers to know that the gilded few with the Golden Tickets, or Varadkar Vouchers, barely numbered a dozen, or that most members of the Cabinet didn’t get an invite.
A former senior minister who is often described as “close to the Taoiseach” is said to be “still raging”.
The only Ministers invited, so far, are Simon Coveney and Simon Harris, Eoghan Murphy, Paschal Donohoe and Josepha Madigan. The old guard are conspicuous by their absence.
The Taoiseach has protested to close colleagues that he knows very little about his party, but that hasn't stopped TDs from fretting that the Golden Ticket holders hold the key to the Cabinet reshuffle that Leo had promised for early summer. It was, after all, Leo who set up and chose the members for the WhatsApp group. Junior minister Helen McEntee and Senator Neale Richmond, both of whom have worked closely with the Taoiseach on the Brexit issue, are invited, as is Martin Heydon, the chairman of the parliamentary party.
Along with a young Varadkar, Kildare South TD Heydon was a leading member of the all-male “five-a-side” group of ambitious first-time TDs elected in 2011 who used to meet in the Merrion Hotel’s Cellar Bar to discuss policy.
Former Fine Gael minister of State and pal from university Lucinda Creighton is on the list, while marriage equality campaigners, former Fianna Fáil senator Averil Power and prospective Fianna Fáil European election candidate Tiernan Brady are also invited.
All week, there have been dejected mutterings from the Overlooked.
On Friday, they were still checking with each other to see if anyone got a late call-up.
“I can’t believe he did what he did. Politically, it’s the most stupid thing ever. Quite the own goal,” confided a backbencher on Thursday. “If he had just sent text messages, then everyone wouldn’t have seen who was left out. It’s so public. People are fuming. And then there’s all the ones who are disgusted because they weren’t even put in the bloody WhatsApp group in the first place. I can tell you, this won’t be forgotten fast.”
No playing to the gallery at this FG think-in
The National Gallery seemed such a lovely venue for Fine Gael’s special parliamentary party meeting on the eve of the new Dáil term on Monday. All the arrangements were put in place well in advance, with media registration completed the week before due to security considerations.
So it was a surprise to get an email late on Sunday evening from the press office advising of a change of venue. Fine Gael's TDs and Senators gathered instead in the nearby Alexander Hotel, which accommodated the party at very short notice and facilitated the smooth running of the think-in. But why the sudden move?
What did they think we were going to be doing? Trooping in to look at the Caravaggios and naked statues?
It seems the National Gallery was under the impression that a full-scale Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting was not a party political event. At the last minute, having enquired with headquarters whether the occasion would be used to disseminate a particular political message (it would), the gallery regretfully had to cancel the booking. The backroom boys were bemused. “What did they think we were going to be doing? Trooping in to look at the Caravaggios and naked statues? Learning how to draw?”
Over in the Alexander Hotel, climate change was discussed during the morning sessions, and the afternoon was given over to issues of party organisation. Speakers included John Paul Phelan, director of elections for the local elections in May; Regina Doherty, who is director of elections for the European elections; and Donohoe, who is the overall director of organisation.
This is a powerful position – it’s Phil Hogan’s old post – and should see Paschal as head honcho whenever the general election comes around. After their deliberations, Heydon, chairman of the parliamentary party, hosted dinner in a packed side room at Fire restaurant in the Mansion House.
There was, of course, a cake for the Taoiseach in advance of his big birthday. It’s a safe bet that quite a few of his deputies and Senators (the ones not on his party list) didn’t take a slice, for fear it would choke them. The parliamentarians were joined for the evening by about 20 of the party’s eager new general election candidates.
This, we hear, added a certain edge to proceedings, as wary incumbents determined to retain their seats icily eyed ambitious constituency rivals at the far end of the table. They included Minister of State Mary Mitchell O'Connor and her running mate in Dún Laoghaire, Cllr Barry Ward; Cavan/Monaghan TD Joe Reilly and youth activist Sandra McIntyre; and Senator Colm Burke, who will be contesting Cork North Central along with barrister Julie O'Leary.
Minister for Health takes on his biggest portfolio – new dad
Harris couldn’t stop talking when we caught up with him on Friday. The Minister for Health hardly paused for breath when asked how he feels about becoming a father for the first time. His wife Caoimhe gave birth to Saoirse (8lbs 11oz) in Holles Street at 9.31pm on Thursday night. “People tell me how life-changing it will be, but I suppose you don’t realise how much until it happens. Saoirse is absolutely beautiful. We can’t wait to bring her home. It’s nerve-wracking, though, I so want to be a good dad.”
He was quick to correct some reports that his new daughter shares the same birthday as the Taoiseach. "She doesn't, but she does with Michelle Obama – what a role model for her."
And why Saoirse? “We chose that name because we want her to have the freedom to be whoever she wants and aspire to do whatever she wants.”
Simon says he’ll be back at work this week, but he’ll be trying to balance his commitments with spending as much time as he can with Caoimhe and Saoirse.
“I’ll never get this time back again.”
Dáil’s biggest change in 100 years: a new email programme
The Dáil hits a century on Monday and the Oireachtas is holding all sorts of events to mark this major milestone in Irish history. Such is the significance of the anniversary, Dáil Éireann is actually going to sit on a Monday.
There’s a special centenary sitting (on January 21st, 100 years to the day) in Dublin’s Mansion House, scene of the Dáil’s first public meeting, when those elected representatives who were able to turn up – many could not – declared Ireland a Republic and sovereign independent State. (A fact, sadly, which still eludes some Brexiteers across the water.)
Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl has thrown himself into the spirit of the occasion and will be hosting a number of events in and around Leinster House as the year progresses. On Thursday, he welcomes the members of the Oireachtas press gallery to a dinner in the Members’ restaurant. The menu includes an option to dine from the simple but hearty menu which was available in 1919 – hairy bacon, anyone? The event not only celebrates the centenary but also “the role of the Oireachtas press gallery down through the ages”.
As part of the Oireachtas 100 programme, a special brochure has been produced featuring a timeline of key moments in our young democracy. Everything is in it, but if you skip to the end you will see major events from the last year. June 21st, for example, is the date on which Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, addressed a joint sitting of both Houses. October 21st was the date of the referendum on the 37th amendment to the Constitution – the one to do with blasphemy.
But the most momentous happening of all, under the heading “October 2018” is this: “The Oireachtas has moved from Lotus Notes, used since 1992, for email and migrated to Outlook/Exchange.”
A key moment in our democracy, for sure. It’s even made it to one of the large display boards of seminal moments lining the walls of the temporary external corridor between Leinster House and the new Leinster House 2000 complex. The walkway is in place while restoration work is carried out on the old building. The move from one computer programme to another isn’t even completed yet, but the transition has caused deep trauma among many TDs and Senators.
“It’s like moving from low babies to high babies, but maybe less traumatic. It makes dealing with emails and our diaries a little easier, I suppose,” said one TD, bearing up well under the strain.