User Menu

Miriam Lord: Thin-skinned Taoiseach lays it on a bit too thick

Dáil sketch: What rude word did Micheál Martin utter to get Leo in such a lather?

Was it something I said? Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin was a bit lost for the offending word. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Poor diddums. Did potty-mouth Martin say nasty things about little Leo? What did he say to you, Taoiseach? What did he say? We were all ears.

But Leo Varadkar refused to repeat the bold words uttered by the leader of Fianna Fáil during Leaders’ Questions in the Dáil. He’s not that kind of Taoiseach. Leo is a good boy. Or is he?

His mini-meltdown over Micheál Martin’s apparent use of “unparliamentary” language was surprising, perplexing and over the top.

His intense portrayal of a scandalised uber-dude in a 21st-century parliament was about as real as that old myth about prudish Victorians covering-up naked table legs. We smelled a rat. (Rat, by the way, is one of the words in the Dáil’s quaint and ancient list of banned expressions. A TD cannot call another a rat.)

Well, not so much a rat as a red herring. A whole shoal of red herrings, bringing to mind Bertie Ahern in his heyday when he once cautioned against people “throwing red herrings and white elephants at each other”.

Going by his performances thus far at Leaders’ Questions, Varadkar is not far off the white elephant stage.

It is difficult not to think that yesterday’s ridiculous outburst was a pre-planned distraction. One to go with his distraction from the previous day, when he toddled into the chamber wearing an enamel poppy in his lapel. If that came from his Spin Unit’s Pin Unit, it mean’s Leo’s fit of the vapours must come from his Spin Unit’s Sin Unit.

Wage link

Scandalised, he was. Apparently. Micheál Martin raised the situation of people working in hospices who had their pay cut during the austerity years in line with public servants in the HSE, but now that pay restoration is happening that wage link between the two sectors has miraculously disappeared. The Fianna Fáil leader reminded the Taoiseach that this wasn’t his first time to draw his attention to the plight of certain bodies in the health sector such as hospice organisations.

“They are being treated in a particularly shabby, cynical and dishonest manner in relation to pay restoration and funding” as set down in the Lansdowne Road agreement and new public sector pay deals, he said.

Micheál then reminded Leo of how the hospice movement is “one of the most cherished areas of care in our health service, uniquely enjoying almost universal approval from the public for the remarkable care, empathy and space that it gives to families and their loved ones at the end of their lives.”

Naturally enough, the Taoiseach did not disagree with him. Far from it. He was swift to signal his great support for the hospice movement and its work. However, there are certain rules governing the funding of “section 39” bodies which have a certain degree of autonomy, thus setting them apart from HSE-controlled establishments.

But in his earlier contribution, Micheál Martin refuted this interpretation and said he had the paperwork to prove it. “There is no point coming in here saying we all support hospices when you screw them. That’s what you’ve been doing for the last six months on this issue. It’s just utterly dishonest. The replies from the Minister and from yourself are dishonest. The hospices’ non-pay costs have gone way up. We all have correspondence from them.”

‘Terrible blackguarding’

In Micheál’s opinion, there is “terrible blackguarding” going on around the funding status of the hospices. “It is very simple, actually. The pay linkage should be restored.”

After his second question, which didn’t get any reaction from the Dáil, he sat down and shuffled his papers, awaiting a reply.

Leo rose and buttoned up one button in his jacket, as he always does. Then he put on his serious face.

“First of all, deputy Martin, I reject that allegation and I reject the language that you’ve just used in this House. I think using that sort of language used in this, our parliamentary chamber is unbecoming of your office as leader of the Opposition.”

Micheál snapped to attention. “Which language?”

“The unparliamentary language which you used. I think it’s unbecoming your office, quite frankly, to use . . .”

All Leo was missing was a sulky pout and “I’m telling the Ceann Comhairle on you, so I am”

The leader of the opposition was nonplussed. He requested a definition of this offending word.

“I won’t repeat your language, but . . .” Leo said prissily as Heather Humphreys sitting beside him looked stumped and Finian McGrath next to her smirked uncontrollably. Joe McHugh, the Chief Whip, who sits directly behind the Taoiseach, mouthed something and did his best to look appalled.

“Ridiculous,” harrumphed a mystified Micheál.

Whereupon Leo, in a lather of sanctimony and affronted morals, declared “the Ceann Comhairle may wish to examine whether or not that’s one of the words prohibited and considered to be unparliamentary language”.

All he was missing was a sulky pout and “I’m telling the Ceann Comhairle on you, so I am”.

As for Seán Ó Fearghaíl, he didn’t seem bothered at all. Probably, like the rest of us, he was trying to figure out which particular word had upset the fragile sensibilities of the Taoiseach so much.

“Deal with the substantive issue,” roared Fianna Fáil’s Timmy Dooley.

“Calm yourself down” smirked Finian.

“You should stick to North Korea,” shot back Timmy, in a reference to McGrath’s membership of the Independent Alliance’s Pyongyang Gang.

High horse

Leo, inexplicably, was still up on his white elephant, sorry, high horse. “But whether it is unparliamentary language or not, I think it’s certainly beneath the dignity of this House, the dignity of your office and your party to use that sort of language in this House.”

So “screw” was deemed the culprit. Except, might it have been Micheál’s use of “dishonest” which delicate flower Leo suddenly found so offensive?

Finian McGrath was in stitches.

“This is no smiling matter,” said Micheál, shooting quizzical looks in all directions and getting them back in spades from Willie O’Dea next door. Clearly, neither man had the foggiest notion of what had been said to upset the Taoiseach so much.

In offices around Leinster House, journalists listened back to the exchanges. The only word that jumped out at them was “screw”. But TDs regularly thunder in the Dáil about the government or big business or major institutions “screwing” the ordinary citizen.

A quick perusal of the official record shows that leading anti-abortion campaigner Mattie McGrath is the worst offender in recent times.

Others reckoned that it was the use of the word “blackguarding” which upset Leo so.

So “screw” was deemed the culprit. Except, might it have been Micheál’s use of “dishonest” which delicate flower Leo suddenly found so offensive? Although clearly, he wasn’t calling him a dishonest person. Anyway, dishonest isn’t on the list of forbidden words. “Liar” is, though.

But the courtly deputy Martin would never have called him that.

Finally, after his bizarre outburst, Disgusted of Blanchardstown actually agreed with Micheál’s original point.

“I agree that there is a long-standing pay linkage between public servants and hospice staff. That pay linkage should be honoured,” he said.

Is it that, with a confidence and supply agreement with Fianna Fáil keeping him in power, he actually goes along for now with what Micheál says, but makes a song and dance in the Dáil before acquiescing so nobody notices?

Now that’s bizarre. But believable. Unlike yesterday’s carry-on.