It’s been a lacklustre year in Leinster House, with Brexit- and Boris-related events in the UK sucking the life and colour out of the political landscape here.
Bit players hogged the headlines with entertaining controversies – Maria Bailey and her hotel swing swan dive providing the nation with a long-running diversion and RTÉ's Sean O'Rourke with the interview of the year.
But nobody really shone on the political stage with a stand-out performance.
On the Brexit front, we presented an excellent CV to the world in the form of Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney. The Taoiseach and his Minister for Foreign Affairs formed an excellent tag team – Coveney playing it serious and steady and Varadkar impressing at the major international set-piece events.
Perhaps understandably, Coveney has been under the radar on other issues while Varadkar’s Dáil performances have been patchy. The Taoiseach has a good head for detail and adores statistics, throwing them out constantly to illustrate how well the country is doing.
But for people worried about housing or health or childcare, and for the many trying to make ends meet in low-paid jobs which flatter those statistics, that approach provides little comfort.
The Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin, had a relatively good year, doing enough to provide opposition while committed to a confidence-and-supply agreement with Fine Gael for the sake of the baby Brexit. That highwire act is on its last legs – in credibility terms there is only so much shouting against the government Micheál Martin can do while still voting to keep it in power.
So our Politician of the Year is Sinn Féin's deputy leader in the Dáil, Pearse Doherty.
The Donegal TD would also be a contender for Shoutiest Politician of the Year, but he has been a surefooted and passionate performer whose work in taking on the insurance industry and keeping a spotlight on its practices has been a rare highlight.
One video of Pearse in action at a committee filleting representatives of the sector for allegedly overstating fraudulent claims amassed more than half a million views. Doherty has maintained a sharp focus on the insurance crisis and its alarming nationwide impact on small businesses and community projects. The situation is becoming a big general election issue, with dogged Doherty capturing the pre-election moral high ground for his party as he keeps up pressure on the big companies for “price-gouging consumers with rip-off premiums”.
The Dara Murphy Fierce Big Job in Europe Award:
Step forward Big Phil Hogan for landing the weighty EU Trade portfolio when new EU president Ursula von der Leyen announced her cabinet in September. Fine Gael's Mr Fixit and former minister Hogan will be in charge of one of the most important economic and political portfolios in the Commission at a crucial time for both the EU and Ireland as the UK prepares to exit the bloc. Big Phil is no pushover. Cocky Boris Johnson might soon discover the meaning of senior hurling.
The Papua Don't Preach Award:
To Bertie Ahern for his role in the continuing implementation of the Bougainville Peace Agreement and successful chairing of the Bougainville Referendum Commission.
We didn’t expect to see The Bert popping up in the South Pacific to announce that the region had voted overwhelmingly for independence from Papua New Guinea, but dere y’are, as he might say himself.
The former taoiseach’s substantial role in delivering the Northern Ireland peace process means his negotiation skills are in demand around the world. He is doing valuable work.
And while he didn’t cover himself in glory during his awful tribunal days or when he was running the economy into the ground, he deserves every credit for this side of his public life.
Well done Bertie.
There are some who feel he should never be seen or heard again in public, but his take on politics closer to home is always interesting. Bertie is a very shrewd reader of the political scene.
Here's what he said before the general election in the UK: "I can't see Labour being able to get anywhere, quite frankly." And he was right.
“I suspect Johnson will get an overall majority. Then we’ll have to go back to dealing with the absolute nonsense that he will get a trade deal in 2020 and it’s as likely that I’ll get home in an hour as that happening,” he correctly predicted from Bougainville.
The Brendan Behan Award for Split of the Year: Paul Murphy
Behan famously wrote that the first item on the agenda for a republican party is "the split". Politicians on the left in Ireland are very fond of doing the splits.
In September, Paul Murphy amicably parted company with the Socialist Party to set up RISE, which stands for Radical, Internationalist, Socialist and Environmentalist. The Socialist Party now goes under the banner of Solidarity but used to be part of the Anti-Austerity Alliance and is not to be confused with People Before Profit, which is different, although the two groupings jointly refer to themselves as Solidarity-People Before Profit and are not the same as Independents4Change whose two leading lights, Clare Daly and Mick Wallace, left for the European Parliament in May.
To be absolutely clear, Murphy says RISE is “a third arm” of Solidarity-People Before Profit. Not so much a split as a splinter.
The How to Win Friends and Influence People Award: The Socialist Party
In March our reporter Fiach Kelly got his hands on internal strategy documents which discussed the movement's approach to Brexit, among other issues. Erstwhile member Paul Murphy (before he splintered) pondered the right way to "tell the truth" to the masses.
“Are we guilty of not ‘telling the truth’ to the working class when we don’t bring a demand to leave the EU?” he mused.
Yes and no.
“We always tell the truth to the working class. But we present the truth in the way which is most digestible to the working class at a particular time.”
Which is most considerate.
The Eoghan Murphy Award for Building Houses:
Fine Gael Senator Paudie Coffey announced to anguished wails of indifference that he will not be contesting the next general election. In July, he settled his High Court action against the Kilkenny People newspaper. He claimed he was defamed in an article about an election boundary row with party colleague John Paul Phelan.
In a press release during the 2016 campaign, Phelan likened the then minister of State to an 18th-century highwayman called “Crotty the Robber” accusing him of “robbing chunks of South Kilkenny” through a boundary review. The Waterford Senator, upset and traumatised, maintained this slur was a contributing factor to him losing his Dáil seat.
The jury failed to reach a verdict in 2018. The case was settled earlier this year.
In an interview with Damien Tiernan on WLR when he announced his departure from politics, Coffey insisted the court case hasn't left him out of pocket.
“If anybody wants to come out to Portlaw I’ll show them the nice new house that I am building at the moment, the nice car that I bought during the year. It certainly didn’t cripple me.”
This led to Iconic Newspapers, publishers of the Kilkenny People, issuing a statement clarifying that “no money changed hands as a result of this legal action”.
And wry comments around Leinster House about how Paudie Coffey now has a better house-building record than Eoghan Murphy.
The Are Your Ears Burning? Award
The winner is Kate O'Connell, Fine Gael TD for Dublin Bay South who spent three days in September searching frantically for her phone only to discover she'd cooked it in the oven.
“Apologies to anyone who may have been trying to reach me since Thursday evening,” she tweeted. “I have just located my phone.”
Kate found it melted and “baked to death” in a baking tray under tinfoil and confessed she had no idea how it got there.
O'Connell, to the annoyance of some in the parliamentary party, has been making sure her voice is heard in crowded Dublin Bay South. She lobbed a grenade on Twitter at Simon Harris over consultant pay and she publicly spoke out about "shocking" conditions in Crumlin Children's Hospital. "I was actually embarrassed as a TD to be there and I was afraid someone would recognise me," she confessed after attending the emergency department with a sick child.
Most Relieved TDs:
Step forward Fine Gael Ministers of State in Wexford Paul Kehoe and Michael D'Arcy, fretting about their Dáil seats in the wake of Verona Murphy's addition to the party's general election ticket. The articulate, business-savvy political newcomer was an impressive voice on Brexit and well on her way to becoming an established media talking head when she was selected to contest the Wexford byelection.
Headquarters was happy to have another woman candidate (and president of the Road Haulage Association to boot) to help with the gender quota target. Verona was on the fast track.
But her juggernaut skidded off the road following controversial comments about “reprogramming” migrants.
She repeatedly apologised after Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan frogmarched her to a direct provision centre for a spot of on-message reprogramming, an episode Opposition TDs dismissed as a stunt. However, on the eve of the byelection Verona issued a punchy campaign video accusing the media of "character assassination" and featuring a line about not being "dictated to by people inside the Pale".
The Taoiseach described it as “very bizarre”.
Verona polled a respectable vote but her Fine Gael race was run. She may yet run as an independent.
Most Relieved Leader:
Leo Varadkar is relieved now that his former protege Verona Murphy is off the FG ticket. "Quite frankly," he sighed, "I'm glad she didn't get elected."
But Micheál Martin is equally relieved and glad his man Malcolm Byrne won the Wexford byelection. Politically experienced, presentable and articulate, Micheál's newest TD looks like ministerial material if his boss ever gets the chance to pick a cabinet. The Fianna Fáil leader isn't blessed with front bench choice and Malcolm's win diverted attention from the likes of Timmy Dooley and Niall Collins who dirtied their bibs in the party's embarrassing War of the Buttons dodgy Dáil voting caper.
Also relieved is Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald. She is masking a very worrying drop in the party’s Northern Ireland vote thanks to the shining success of Mark Ward in the Dublin Mid-West byelection, John Finucane’s win over Nigel Dodds in Belfast and a corresponding slump in the DUP’s vote.
The Ivor Callely Memorial Brass Neck Award:
Dara Murphy, the former Cork TD who legitimately claimed full expenses and allowances for two years while doing nothing in the Dáil because he was working a second job in Brussels. Air Miles Murphy is our soaraway winner.
His job involved promoting Fine Gael’s sister organisation in Europe and he did it with the Taoiseach’s blessing. Murphy’s last action as a TD was to breeze into the chamber for a late-night confidence motion to cast his vital vote for the Government. Having done his duty by Fine Gael, he immediately resigned his seat and began a new job in Brussels the following day.
Callely, from Clontarf in Dublin, was the Fianna Fáil senator and former junior minister who famously declared his principal residence was his west Cork holiday home when claiming expenses. His exploits caused ructions and gave rise to the usual raft of promises about root and branch reform of the expenses system.
It must be stressed that Dara operated completely within the rules which allow TDs and senators to fob in and then just f-f-f-fly off, if they wish. Register a presence in the building on 120 sitting or non-sitting days in a year and they can collect their full nosebag of allowances, a target which absentee TD Murphy hit exactly on the nose, which was a stroke of luck.
The Taoiseach is runner-up in this category for persistently pushing the line that Dara Murphy should be independently investigated to ascertain if he contravened any rules, when everybody knows this is pointless. Weeks on, with the controversy refusing to go away, he is suddenly dismayed to discover this and disappointed that Dara Murphy has yet to submit himself to an inquiry.
Leo was big enough to admit he got it wrong with one Murphy (Verona) but remains strangely unwilling to acknowledge this with another (Dara).
The Fred and Ginger Award for Best Double Act:
Winston Churchtown and Michael McDowell. Winston aka Shane Ross and senior counsel McDowell were sniping at each other all year over the Judicial Appointments Bill. It finally passed the Seanad following a marathon filibuster spearheaded by McDowell who subsequently denied on radio that he "had an agenda" with the Minister. No, it was Winston who had "a personal agenda" against him although it didn't amount to "a personal spat".
Ross had a good second half to his year – Stepaside Garda Station opening, the Judicial Appointment Bill being passed and his handling of the FAI fiasco come to mind – and now we hear he is quietly pleased with pre-election polling figures in his Dublin Rathdown constituency.
Numbers permitting, could this mean a triumphant Dáil return is on the cards for Winston Churchtown, with perhaps even a second ministry?
Senator McDowell, meanwhile, is busy with his dance of the seven veils, refusing to be drawn on whether he will run in the general election while pumping out glossy literature and being impossibly coy when asked about his intentions.
The Johannes Gutenberg Award for Services to the Printing Industry and Filling up Green Bins:
Fine Gael senator Catherine Noone, who ran up the biggest free printing bill this year, placing orders for almost €9,000 (€8,890.44) worth of printed material for the green bins of Dublin Bay North. Next in line is Fianna Fáil TD Jack Chambers, who had €7,401.16 worth of material printed for recycling in Dublin West.
We commissioned a special award to honour the new Oireachtas printing machine which will cost more than €2 million when everything is added up. However, the trophy was too big and we had to remove a wall to get it inside, where it broke the sideboard.
The Shameless Award for Sycophancy:
Michael Healy-Rae for his toe-curling toadying to John Delaney when the former FAI boss – at that stage on full paid "gardening leave" from the organisation – was busy avoiding a grilling from the Oireachtas sports committee.
Healy-Rae, who is not a committee member, waited all day at a special hearing into the FAI debacle to make his contribution. “I’d be quite confident that the only thing that you could be accused of is being passionately committed to your job, passionately committed to the survival of the business. . . that all you were trying to do was do good,” he told a simpering Delaney as disgusted committee members threw their eyes to heaven.
The news emerging from Abbotstown at the time was not good, but the man who could have given them all the answers remained silent, citing legal advice.
The Kerry TD lavished praise on the lavishly salaried Delaney, who had steered his organisation to the brink of collapse. “You will be most welcome in Kerry. You will get the mother of all welcomes when you come to Kerry because your reputation and respectability will precede you,” smarmed Healy-Rae.
The Innocent Abroad Award for Implausible Gullibility: Michael Healy-Rae
In December, with the Delaney-FAI controversy a national talking point, Healy-Rae did some furious backpedalling. Months on from his fawning intervention at the committee he claimed he was taken in by the FAI's assertions that the association's finances were in good health. Didn't "everyone" accept its declaration a year earlier in 2018 that the books were in good order and on course to be debt-free by 2020?
“Of course, we’re all very smart now. We have new information we didn’t have at that time,” he told Mark Tighe in the Sunday Times. “Sure we are all geniuses now. All I can say is I’m very disappointed for what has happened.”
Like many, Healy-Rae may have been blind to the signals in recent years from fans (ejected from matches for criticising the then CEO) and to the dogged reporting from a number of sports journalists, but he listened patiently for hours at a committee meeting in April while political colleagues of every stripe showed him a far different side to his sainted Delaney and the way he ran the FAI.
And then Michael got up and said his piece anyway, asking no questions and disregarding the very obvious and by now publicly well-grounded misgivings of his political peers.
All because he was too trusting and innocent.
Shock of 2019:
See above. Innocent? Gullible? Taken in? Nobody pulls the wool over the eyes of the Healy-Raes, universally acknowledged as among the smartest and shrewdest operators in Leinster House. Pull the other one, Michael – it's got Danny on it.