Miriam Lord: TDs led up the garden path by politics in the Covid era

This week veered from green fingers in Kildare to Tubthumping in the Seanad

Fianna Fáil’s James Lawless –Covid rules mean less time with constituents, more time in the garden

It’s hard to believe that this time last year we were entering a final week of frenetic political activity with polling day looming in the general election.

Campaign crews crisscrossed constituencies knocking on doors and leafleting anything that moved. There were handshakes and hugs as flesh was pressed with abandon. Meetings in crowded halls. Arguments in crowded television studios. Full contact, close combat of the election kind.

God be with the days.

And when the yahooing and buckleppin’ stopped, the winners – many delighted to make the breakthrough and many more relieved just to make it back – headed into Leinster House to get down to work. Except they were about to experience a whole new way of working. Before long the daily business of parliament was turned on its head by Covid-19 and outside the Dáil, TDs suddenly found their community lifeline to constituents gone.


This has been particularly difficult for first-time deputies who found themselves unable to connect properly and build a relationship with their new voters. Weekday nights and weekend Saturdays spent holding clinics or leafleting homes around the constituency are out.

Fianna Fáil’s James Lawless is one of them. His constituents now mainly communicate with him by phone or email. His Kildare North constituency office is closed to them.

The party’s spokesman on science and technology, who is a lawyer by trade, has an interesting take on how this changed situation may have affected the way national politicians do their work. “What degree of connection do we have with the people anymore?” he muses. “We can’t get out into the towns and hear people’s concerns and find out what they feel about major issues.”

Their constituents keep them grounded.

Away from the hothouse atmosphere of the Dáil – and this would apply to TDs from all parties and none – they can gauge the local view on matters when they are out and about in their constituencies. National policies are often reshaped and decisions sometimes reversed when deputies get back to Leinster House with reports of grassroots anger and unease.

And Lawless wonders if the increasingly polarised and aggressive levels of discourse in Dáil Éireann are because TDs – meeting far fewer people on the ground because of Covid-19 restrictions – are now interacting more with social media where views tend to be fixed and entrenched and less representative of the overall population.

Could he be right? Could some of the more tone-deaf decisions made by the Government (often followed by an embarrassing climbdown) be down to that continuing absence of regular feedback from the general public?

Still, the sudden cessation of clinics, canvassing, weekend cake sales, field days, fun runs and race nights is not without its advantages. With his constituency weekend work severely curtailed for most of the past year, Lawless has turned his attention to the garden.

By the summer he was growing spuds, corn, mixed greens and rhubarb and had acquired a greenhouse and a little flock of chickens. He made the first fence around the chicken run from election posters. Taoiseach Micheál Martin, whose idea of a dietary blowout is to go mad and chance a boiled egg, has been one grateful beneficiary of fresh eggs from the Lawless back garden in Sallins. The TD also has a batch of rhubarb and elderberry gin on the go from autumn.

We blame Sinn Féin’s Eoin Ó Broin and Fine Gael’s Richard Bruton for starting the interest in food and foraging among TDs.

Wandering Wicklow

Matt Shanahan is puzzled by Simon Harris’s grasp of geography.

“Is this a blatant political stroke?” wonders the independent TD for Waterford after the Minister for Further and Higher Education issues a statement on Thursday reaffirming his commitment to deliver a technological university for the southeast.

The reason for Shanahan’s mystification is the bit where he says: “I want to emphasise that this is a TU for everyone in the region, not just for Waterford or for Carlow but also for Wexford, Kilkenny, Wicklow, Laois and Kildare.

“I want the people of the South East not to have to cast covetous glances at Dublin or Cork or Galway but to be proud that they have a university every bit as good if not better than the excellent provision in those cities and others.”

Shanahan recalls that when Harris was minister for health the “South East” covered a far smaller area and he supported a recommendation to cut cardiac services in University Hospital Waterford because the catchment area wasn’t sufficient to justify an upgrade. But consultants at the hospital protested that the lack of a 24-hour service affected far more people than those in Waterford as patients from Carlow, Kilkenny, South Tipperary and Wexford also used the service.

“Is Wicklow now in the South East when a university is promised by Simon Harris?” asks Shanahan. “When cardiac care was under discussion, the region didn’t even reach to North Kilkenny. It begs the question: where is Maynooth University supposed to be servicing? And Dublin has as plethora of universities. Since when did we become so special in Waterford?”

Five minutes to shine

Fianna Fáil’s Seanad hopefuls made their pitches to members of the parliamentary party this week as the contest to choose a candidate for one of the two forthcoming byelections gathered pace.

Adejinmi may not be a traditional Irish name, but neither was de Valera or Markievicz

Thirteen runners lined up for the online hustings with each given five minutes to impress the TDs, Senators and MEPs who will vote in a couple of weeks’ time. It’s a mixed bunch of aspirants drawn from the ranks of former TDs and senators and sitting county councillors.

In a gentlemen’s agreement between the coalition leaders, Fine Gael is fielding former senator Maria Byrne from Limerick in the byelection to replace Michael D’arcy on the agricultural panel, while Fianna Fáil will put forward a candidate to replace Sinn Féin’s Elisha McCallion on the industrial and commercial panel.

Tipped as front-runners are popular former TD Margaret Murphy O’Mahoney from Cork South West, who now works on the Fianna Fáil political staff in Leinster House, and two young Dublin-based councillors – Kate Feeney for Blackrock and Shane Moynihan for Palmerstown-Fonthill. The smart money is either Feeney or Moynihan as the party struggles to increase its presence in the capital. However, it’s a secret vote and anything could happen.

Cllr Remu Adejinmi, the first woman of colour elected to Longford County Council, had the line of the night with “Adejinmi may not be a traditional Irish name, but neither was de Valera or Markievicz”.

And Joe Sheridan, a councillor from Dunmore in Galway sparked gasps of shock and sighs of longing when he popped up on the screen live from the family pub, in front of the beer taps. He assured his Zoom audience that the doors were closed and the taps turned off.

“More’s the pity,” grumbled one deputy who left their mic on. “They used to bring us out for pints after the hustings instead of just dangling them in front of us.”

Chumbawamba advice

The award for this week’s best anarcho-pop reference in the Seanad goes to Vincent P Martin for successfully quoting 1990s band Chumbawamba when urging the Government to give “proper and due consideration” to a zero-Covid strategy.

“I am a Senator from a Government party which not only tolerates but encourages diverse opinions,” he declared during Tuesday’s Covid-19 debate, clearly having missed Cllr Peter Kavanagh’s remarks the previous day after he resigned from the Greens citing a culture which allows personal abuse of members who criticise the party leadership.

Vincent P believes all strategies should be put on the table and explored fully. “What is the harm in failure?” he asked, turning to the band’s enduring hit song, Tubthumping, for inspiration.

“We get knocked down, we get up again; you’re never gonna keep us down.”

Earlier, he supported senator Fiona O’Loughlin’s plea to junior minister for agriculture Martin Heydon for funding to ensure that Horse Sport Ireland, which is temporarily located in Naas but plans to move to new headquarters in Dublin, remains in Kildare.

Senator Martin, a Monaghan man living in Kildare, waxed lyrical about the county’s bloodstock industry.

“It is a world leader. The horse or equine industry is to Kildare what Semple Stadium and Croke Park are to the GAA. It is the spiritual home. To remove such an essential piece of infrastructure from Kildare would be as incongruous as removing vineyards from Bordeaux,” cried the senior counsel.

It was a good week for the Martin family. The aforementioned Peter Kavanagh, who was the Green’s Irish language and Gaeltacht spokesperson, told Irish language publication Tuairisc that his reason for leaving was the “poisonous” culture which evolved in recent months and had nothing to do with the party’s Irish language policy.

He described Vincent P’s sister, Green Party deputy leader Catherine Martin, as “the most committed and enthusiastic Minister for the Gaeltacht since Michael D Higgins”.

Bright future for Akay Forty Seven

Anything interesting in Talking Dogs this week?

According to the latest racing news on the Irish Greyhound Board’s website there was an “outstanding performance from Akay Forty Seven at Kilcohan Park” on Tuesday night.

That would be Akay Forty Seven the dog, as opposed to AK47, the leader of the Labour Party.

Apparently she ran out “a most impressive winner” in the 10th race, registering a fourth career victory.

“It was certainly no surprise to see her land the spoils” writes Barry Drake. “In front early doors, the outcome never looked in doubt as the winner showed plenty of pace to beat Tinahue Lady, by three lengths, in a very smart, 41.18 [seconds]. A performance that would suggest she has a bright future ahead over staying trips.”

Akay Forty Seven won €345, bringing her total career winnings to €1,400.

Co-owner Alan “AK47” Kelly must have been thrilled.