Miriam Lord: The west is irate as Micheál shifts power balance to Cork
The unprecedented Dáil session in the Convention Centre looked like a theatrical set for a play about a war crimes tribunal
In his first speech in the office Taoiseach Micheál Martin remembered a “blessed” childhood in a “close-knit working-class community” in Cork. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP via Getty Images
The climb took half a lifetime to conquer. A long, slow ascent with so many setbacks along the way. People said it would never be completed. But on Saturday in Dublin, the man who seemed destined to fall short defied the odds and finally reached his summit.
Five weeks before his 60th birthday, and 31 years since he first entered Dáil Éireann, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin was elected Taoiseach.
All that time he put in – the good days and the bad days, the graft and the grit, the public drama and the private tragedies – was suddenly telescoped into eight minutes of sitting alone in a strange silence in an unfamiliar hall as he waited for the votes to be verified and result declared.
It must have felt like forever for Micheál, shifting nervously in his seat, taking deep breaths, weaving and unwinding his fingers.
Because of Covid-19 restrictions he had to sit on his own surround by empty seats, colleagues and family socially distanced out of the picture. His wife and children could not travel from Cork, and parliamentary party colleagues were not allowed within touching distance in the temporary chamber.
In Leinster House the setpiece election of a new taoiseach is an exciting, emotional occasion. Micheál didn’t get to experience it. His pandemic-driven ascension in Dublin’s vast Convention Centre was a drab affair, played out in a soulless space which was just too big for any atmosphere to develop.
That wasn’t any fault of the Oireachtas authorities who put in long hours getting the venue ready for this unprecedented Dáil session. There was nothing they could do about those yawning gaps sucking the life out of the place.
But it meant that the new Taoiseach, on the biggest day of his political career and one of the biggest days of his life, had no colleagues at his elbow to distract him with small talk, and no opportunity to bank up priceless memories with proud family and friends in the public gallery.
Old silver bell
The votes were checked and rechecked. After what seemed like an age, the Ceann Comhairle dinged the old silver bell he brought with him from the Dáil chamber. Sean Ó Fearghail was installed behind a desk on the main stage, with a cast of officials arranged around more desks. It looked like a theatrical set for a play about a war crimes tribunal.
Micheál looked up towards Ó Feargháil, the hint of smile beginning to broaden out.
“The motion is carried, and the Dáil has agreed to nominate Deputy Micheál Martin for appointment by the President to be Taoiseach.”
The outgoing taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael, having earlier pronounced the end of civil war politics before voting with the rest of his party for a Fianna Fáil Taoiseach, magnanimously led the applause.
Leo Varadkar was first to his feet as most, but not all politicians, rose to congratulate a fellow TD on his great achievement.
The Taoiseach-elect could never have envisaged delivering his first speech in such strange circumstances. When he spoke of his family – wife, children and his late parents – his voice thickened and wavered. You could see how much this moment meant to him and his family, and how he wished his father and mother were there to witness it.
He remembered a “blessed” childhood in a “close-knit working-class community” in Cork.
Speaking of that city, a Taoiseach in Cork South Central isn’t the half of it. The four-seater constituency also boasts the Minister for Foreign Affairs (Simon Coveney) and the Minister for Public Expenditure (Michael McGrath).
Some people are finding this difficult.
“Three of them in the Government,” sighed an incredulous observer from Kerry as word of the new Cabinet line-up spread. “Three from South Central… It’s like Cork beating Kerry in the All-Ireland final. No, it’s worse even. It’s like… like England winning the World Cup.”
But there was comfort in the elevation to Minister for Education of first-time TD, Fianna Fáil’s Norma Foley from Kerry.
For TDs with aspirations, landing a job as a senior Minister is also like winning a World Cup. Many want to be chosen, few are called. With three coalitions leaders divvying up 15 jobs, noses were sure to be out of joint.
The Fianna Fáil leader was never going to keep everyone happy. But people were nursing expectations. The favoured few would be summoned individually to his office to get the good news.
A posse of hopefuls from all the parties raced after him to Leinster House to await a call. The route from Leinster House to the Taoiseach’s office in Government Buildings is via a glass-covered overhead walkway called the Bridge of Sighs.
Journalists took up position in a discreet nook below the bridge and reported breathlessly on who was and who wasn’t crossing it.
No sign of Jim O’Callaghan, the senior counsel from Dublin Bay South who had been tipped for preferment.
And no sign of Galway’s Anne Rabbitte, another Fianna Fáiler supposed to be very much in the frame. Anne wore a distinctive bright red cape jacket for the occasion.
“If she doesn’t get the nod she’ll be rampaging around Leinster House in her cape looking like Bishop Brennan after he realised Ted kicked him up the arse,” sneered a non-contender.
Anne didn’t get a ministry, but she looked very calm when she returned to the Convention Centre for the announcement of the ones who did.
Neither did Jim O’Callaghan. “I’m going to the Mansion House to set up an alternative government,” he joked to a colleague.
Jim isn’t from the west of Ireland so there must be another reason he didn’t figure.
Mayo’s Dara Calleary, the party’s deputy leader, was expected to land a senior portfolio. Instead he got Chief Whip, which is classed as a super-junior job and means he can sit in a high chair at the Cabinet table but he can’t vote. There is outrage in Mayo. “A Cabinet fit for Cromwell,” thundered the Western People on Sunday, also noting the dearth of Ministers from west of the Shannon. “To hell or to Connacht, indeed.”
Back at the Dáil’s dockland Versailles, people wondered how the authorities were going to stage the big reveal which traditionally happens when the Taoiseach parades his simpering new line-up into the chamber to a chorus of oohs and aahs.
“They can get a 40-foot lorry around the back no bother so nobody will see them coming in,” said an usher.
In the end three coaches sufficed – two for the Ministers and one to accommodate Catherine Martin’s job title and the other two members of her thriving family SME: her husband Frances Noel Duffy TD and her brother Vincent P Martin who bagged one of the Taoiseach’s Seanad nominations.
The Greens’ deputy leader now revels in the ridiculous title of Minister for Media, Culture, Arts, Tourism, Sport and the Gaeltacht “and whatever you’re having yourself”, said Mattie McGrath.
On Sunday morning, in an effort to reassure voters that the west of Ireland has not been cancelled, a statement was rushed out on behalf of Galway West’s Hildegarde Naughton, now the most senior Government representative on the western seaboard.
She “promised to be a voice for Galway West, South Mayo and the broader region in Government”.
It seems Hildegarde is a super-duper junior minister and not only gets to sit in a high chair at the Cabinet table but is also allowed to throw all her toys out of the pram on behalf of the west during the meetings. The Taoiseach may attempt to mollify a seething Calleary with similar status next week.
Meanwhile, former minister for health Simon Harris, who looked deeply worried before the jobs were disbursed, was more than happy with the plum job of Minister for Higher Education.
He has been replaced in health by Stephen Donnelly, who is from the same town as Harris – Gallstones, Co Whitlow.
At the end of a long, long day the Cabinet was bussed to Dublin Castle so Ministers could get their seals of office from the President in a socially distant fashion.
They were photographed completely spaced out in St Patrick’s Hall, looking like they were waiting for Michael D to drop a shoulder and shout “... 5, 6, 7, 8!” so they could burst into a TikTok dance routine.
Then they held their first Cabinet meeting. Taoiseach Martin praised the Greens’ ability to negotiate and singled out their leader for special mention.
“When it comes to senior hurling now, Eamon Ryan is like Christy Ring.”