Miriam Lord: To McGrath, crossing swords means a trip through north Co Dublin

The Taoiseach is off saving the world, and his stand-in doesn’t really do excitement

In Leinster House, anticipation surged as soon as the news broke. Leaders’ Questions suddenly held out the promise of a rambunctious “fasten your seatbelts” kind of afternoon.

All eyes were on the Dáil, before they slowly closed.

Now that she is a stateswoman, Mary Lou McDonald decided to sidestep the session in case it turned ugly, sending in Pearse Doherty because he is one of the few Sinn Féin TDs who can shout louder than his leader.

The Social Democrats fielded Róisín Shortall as she's afraid of nothing while the Rural Independents chanced even-tempered Carol Nolan because sending out Mattie or a Healy-Rae would have been pure reckless. Michael Lowry stepped into the breach for the Regional Independents armed with a numbing contribution on the Tipperary Town Task Force, which worked a treat.


Very few TDs put in an appearance in the chamber. Some were so giddy with excitement they forgot to turn up, and the rest decided it was best to stay away for the good of their nerves.

Because with the Taoiseach away in Berlin saving the world, Michael McGrath, firebrand Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, was taking Leaders’ Questions.

Anything was liable to happen.

Or maybe not. Almost definitely not.

Michael's placid sort of disposition is of no use to Mary Lou, who is more at home on a Tuesday afternoon annoying the hell out of Micheál Martin

Michael McGrath doesn’t really do excitement. To him, crossing swords means a trip through north Co Dublin. The last time he lost his rag he was up a ladder cleaning the windows and it blew away.

On the day visitors returned to the Dáil for the first time in nearly two years, it was rumoured that ushers were handing out pillows as they entered the public gallery.

Michael’s placid sort of disposition is of no use to Mary Lou, who is more at home on a Tuesday afternoon annoying the hell out of Micheál Martin. Short of poking him in the eye with a pointy stick, she is unlikely to get much of a rise out of one man balm-blanket McGrath.

Ordinary people

So Pearse Doherty got stuck in on the cost-of -living crisis, insisting the Government’s recent package of supports barely scratches the surface of the problem.

He read out a long list of proposed changes that should have been implemented, “but the Government refused to do it”. This might be because they are Sinn Féin’s proposals.

In incredulous tones, he reeled off what McGrath and his colleagues could have done if they weren’t living in “dreamland”.

Instead, they are going to implement a carbon tax while his party is proposing cheaper childcare costs, a rent freeze, expanded and extended fuel allowances and a cost-of-living cash payment to individuals.

“You need to wake up and you need to understand where ordinary people are at.”

The air crackled with calm.

“Thank you very much, Deputy Doherty, for raising once again the very real issue of the cost-of-living pressures that people are facing,” began His Serene Dryness, acknowledging that many people are under real financial pressure because of the rising cost of living.

Hardly pausing for breath, he talked about external factors, the strong rebound in the economy, the increase in wholesale energy prices and disruption in the global supply chain.

The Minister was so affronted by the suggestion he doesn't understand "where ordinary people are at" that an icy edge crept into his voice

He noted that “the most recent data from the CSO shows a moderation in January in relation to the harmonised index of consumer prices, down from 5.7 per cent to 5 per cent”.

So things are getting a bit better?

Not really. “It’s only a slight easing” and “we can’t take too much comfort from that.” Only time will tell whether it is a one-off or part of an underlying trend.

The Minister was so affronted by the suggestion he doesn’t understand “where ordinary people are at” that an icy edge crept into his voice. He didn’t raise it, though.

“Deputy, I represent ordinary people. I get elected by ordinary people. This government represents ordinary people. We are listening to them, that is why we have responded in the best way we can so far.”

Suite and sour

Sinn Féin’s finance spokesman repeated his “suite of proposals” that is being so disgracefully ignored. He urged the Minister to take them on board, stop pandering to property investors and represent “the ordinary people that you’re on the side of, Minister, because talk is cheap”.

Not the best closing line, but he wasn’t firing on all cylinders. Shouting into a blanket is not easy.

Quiet man McGrath didn’t miss the response Pearse teed up for him.

"And you're right – talk is cheap."

Michael was giving it socks, but of the kind that don't make any noise when you're padding across a floor

Sinn Féin talks about fuel poverty but didn’t increase the fuel allowance in its alternative budget and it talks about the carbon tax in a “duplicitous” and “highly disingenuous” way, he said.

To unusually restrained protest, he calmly denounced Sinn Féin for giving the impression it was against carbon tax when it had never proposed to unwind or abolish it.

“You’re only ever against the next increase.”

Michael was giving it socks, but of the kind that don’t make any noise when you’re padding across a floor. “Typical of the cynical politics that you are pursuing” he nearly shouted as a few deputies opposite gamely tried to get a decent row going, before giving up.