Miriam Lord: This Government is all out of ideas. Dial 1800 – Help

Another helpline is needed but not for the beleaguered students

 

As yet another crisis broke over their drooping heads, an emergency helpline was put in place for the frightened and the bewildered who are now at breaking point after months of setbacks, screw-ups and unspeakable stress.

Apparently one was set up for secondary school students too, but they’ve been swimming in helplines since the summer and are thoroughly sick of them.

By teatime, the service was up and running. A team of Ministers, junior ministers and special advisers stood by to take the calls and an urgent appeal went out for anyone, anyone at all, to ring in with suggestions as to how the Government might get through a whole week without suffering some class of calamity.

Because they’re all out of ideas. Dial 1800 – Help.

This Government is jinxed. And yet this Wednesday had been looking so good, with the Dáil relocated to the cheerless expanse of the Dublin Convention Centre – where political passion goes to die – and the Government’s weekly embarrassment having happened the day before in Leinster House.

This was the surprise news that Michael D’Arcy, a junior finance minister in the last government who was holding forth on finance industry matters in the Seanad as late as last Wednesday, was quitting the upper house to take up a big job as chief executive of the Irish Association of Investment Managers. Not a good look for a self-harming Government struggling to hang on to public confidence. At least the Mr D’Arcy unpleasantness seemed to have dropped off the radar overnight when the Dáil met again. The Opposition allowed Micheál Martin the relative luxury of a grilling on Government housing policy, Covid support payments, the Media Commission and the lack of effective penalties for illegal dumping.

Probing questions

He sailed through Leaders’ Questions. But then Labour’s Alan Kelly popped up ominously with a few probing questions about the Leaving Cert results appeals process, wondering if the suspicions of errors in the grade calculations were true and if a helpline for students was being set up because, he noted darkly, the Department of Education “seems to have gone to ground all of a sudden”.

The Taoiseach didn’t quite say “I’m glad you asked me that question”, but he took to his feet briskly and replied “Yes, indeed, the Department of Education and Skills has found, to my understanding, two errors in the Leaving Certificate ...” The Minister for Education would be making a “comprehensive statement” later in the afternoon “in terms of what has occurred”.

And yes, some of the students may receive “upgrades” as a result of these errors and they “would be communicated with first.”

Move along here now. Nothing to see.

Kelly looked gobsmacked by the reply. It was the way the Taoiseach delivered it – matter of factly, while aware that the information he was imparting would lead to ructions.

It was a strange moment, because as this exchange was taking place, the stock-still figure of Michael Healy-Rae was framed in the corner of the television shot, head and black cap tilted back and his mouth wide open and catching flies.

In the midst of the newest rocket knocking the Government off kilter again, Healy-Rae appeared to be fast asleep – another TD succumbing to the siren call of the soft seats and low lights in the Convention Centre’s warm and comfy theatre. For the best part of 10 minutes, his open-mouthed and flat capped silhouette called out from the far end of the dress circle. He was probably up half the night watching the Trump/Biden horror show in Ohio.

If Micheál thought Kelly, also known as AK47 would park the issue following his breezy confirmation of the latest upset visited upon the long-suffering students, he was sadly mistaken.

As soon as the agenda moved to Taoiseach’s Questions, Kelly ignored the topic down for discussion (Cabinet committees) and got stuck in. He was completely scandalised and ready to let rip. “I find it hard to speak about anything else today” he began, before bravely summoning up the will to continue.

“Absolute cock-up.” “Extraordinary.” “Any other government at any other time – this would bring it down.”

The ramifications are “humongous”. “How in the name of God did this happen ... How did the department not see this?” All delivered with long, theatrical pauses.

Richard Boyd-Barrett and Mary Lou McDonald were queuing up to pile in.

“A gigantic cock-up.” roared RBB. “An inexplicable cock-up.”

“The final cock-up for the class of 2020,” shouted Mary Lou.

“There is no point in going off half-cocked,” pleaded Micheál.

The national national brain is addled.

Going off half cocked? On the radio, the Liveline phones had already gone full rooster. “I want my points back,” cried one outraged student.

Calculated grades? “A calculated mess” crowed Labour’s very own Foghorn Leghorn, back in the Dáil.

Oh, but Micheál looked miserable again. But it wasn’t his Government’s fault. Some crowd in Canada got the coding wrong. It was a technical error. And it was Leo Varadkar’s administration which brought in the whole calculated grades caper in the first place.

“Very, very regrettable” sighed Micheál, mortified on behalf of everyone. “Believe me” he whimpered, hand to his heart, “it’s not something I wanted to hear about, or anybody wanted to hear about, least of all the students themselves.”

He would have to get Norma Foley into the Dáil to explain. But she’ll doing her big statement at four, explained the Taoiseach.

The Government should have told the Opposition about the problem when it first found out about it. By the way, asked Mary Lou, when was that?

“Eh, last week, I don’t have a specific day.”

“And you kept that very much to yourselves” sniffed Mary Lou, echoing Foghorn Leghorn’s view of the Government’s lack of communication on the cock-up.

Then the media were told to get to Marlborough Street for the Minister’s explanation. They had to sit in a big hall behind desks, like immature students. Normally was shown walking into the press conference, wearing a facemask and holding a large black bag which was stuffed to the seams, perhaps with the shattered dreams of the Coalition Government.

She explained what happened in a clear, calm and competent manner. It will all be sorted. The Department of Education is in charge.

What could possibly go wrong?

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