Miriam Lord: Varadkar avoids the Veronavirus as TDs turn out for Wexford bridge opening

These were no ordinary candidates – they were junior ministerial candidates

 

Leo Varadkar probably thought the biggest threat to a successful day out in Wexford on Wednesday lay outside the Fine Gael camp.

The Taoiseach would have been fully aware of the ongoing threat posed by the Veronavirus and his team would have taken all necessary precautions to protect him from it. As it turned out, he never came in contact with Verona Murphy, the party’s much vaunted candidate in the Wexford byelection last year before she ran her mouth off about immigrants and was duly booted off the general election ticket.

They don’t like to talk about her now.

But the head of the Road Haulage Association hasn’t gone quietly and is running a very strong campaign in the county as an independent. Where once her face adorned posters in Fine Gael blue, she now looks out defiantly from a dark background of burnt orange – or black and tan as the locals are describing it.

Apart from her remarks about migrant toddlers in Wexford becoming Islamic State recruits, her posters themselves are an abomination – a grammatical one.

“Give New Ross It’s Own TD” is an apostrophe too far.

However, it was the presence of his own contingent of candidates, lusting after a bit of notice, which posed most risk to Leo – physical rather than political.

He stepped from his car in New Ross and before he had time to stand up straight a trio of flying Fine Gael candidates burst from nowhere and hurled themselves at him.

But these were no ordinary candidates. These were junior ministerial candidates.

There is nothing so ruthless or needy as ambitious junior ministers hell-bent on political advancement. They have tasted a little of power and they crave more.

Ministerial velcro

Paul Kehoe, Michael D’arcy and John Paul Phelan were the three Fine Gael Ministers of State determined to Velcro themselves to Leo Varadkar during all his photo opportunities at the official opening of the New Ross bypass and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy bridge.

Kehoe and D’arcy, on the Wexford side of the magnificent new structure, are fighting it out for the guaranteed Fine Gael seat in the constituency. A second one is looking increasingly like a tall order this time out. Phelan, meanwhile, would be on firmer ground in Carlow-Kilkenny, with colleague Carlow-based Pat Deering snapping at his heels. But every bit of publicity helps.

All three were on a mission to milk this good news occasion by getting their mugs in as many photos with photogenic Leo as possible. With perseverance and luck, they might even bag a fleeting appearance on the television news. Alongside them, the Lord Mayor of Wexford, despite being a Fianna Fáil man, shamelessly elbowed himself into the frame whenever he could using his chain of office as a shield.

Michael Sheehan is not expected to displace his party colleague and the constituency’s newest TD, Malcolm Byrne, winner of the Wexford bye-election in November, but it won’t be for the want of putting himself about.

Byrne decided to stand back from the fray. “It’s a day for the engineers and builders” he said.

Pride of Labour Party

As Leo was engulfed in the rolling maul of his own ministers and one mayor, Labour leader and constituency elder statesman Brendan Howlin swooped in under them all, calmly greeted the Taoiseach and took it upon himself to escort him from his car.

Brendan has a proprietorial interest in the new bypass.

“I turned the sod on it when I was minister for public expenditure,” he said with pride. Howlin gave the green light to release almost €1 billion in 2012 for significant transport projects, including the New Ross bypass and bridge. And the happy minister for transport also claiming credit at the time was one Leo Varadkar.

Graciously, Leo acknowledged his Labour colleague’s part in delivering the infrastructure during his speech.

Also claiming credit on large posters in Wexford are the Ministers of State Kehoe and D’arcy: “Shortening your Journey. Delivering for Wexford.” You’d nearly think they built the road themselves.

The large platform built on the pristine stretch of roadway with the impressive spans of the bridge gleaming in the distance was groaning with public representatives for the formalities. Thankfully, a space was found for engineer (and local woman) Mary Bowe, the project manager.

“This is the biggest platform party I’ve seen in a long time at one of these events,” marvelled a public servant. Why could that be? Something to do with the election? TDs from Wexford and Kilkenny took the bare look off the stage. Fianna Fáil’s James Brown and Bobby Aylward didn’t miss the the occasion. There were 21 men on the platform and 3 women (engineer par excellence, Mary Bowe; the CEO of Kilkenny County Council and Rose Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, great grand-daughter of the Kennedy matriarch and JFK’s mother, Rose, in whose honour the bridge is named.)

Vacant seats

There were a couple of vacant seats. But Verona Murphy’s name wasn’t on one of them. She was there, at the edge of the crowd, standing near the large foundation stone waiting to be unveiled later by the man who invited her into Fine Gael and then booted her out. (Only herself to blame.)

The photographers were hopeful. Windy junior ministers clustered around the Taoiseach aren’t the best material. So they kept an eye on Verona.

“Will she approach him, do you think?” one of them asked a colleague. “I hope she f****** does,” came the reply.

The speeches went on for a long, long time. There were three chains of office on the platform and more in the invited crowd. The Taoiseach was last to speak. He promised to be brief, recognising it was bitterly cold. At ten minutes, he nearly delivered on the promise.

“By the power invested in me, none of you have homework tonight,” he declared, warming the cockles of the 100 hypothermic schoolchildren along to witness this great event. Contractors BAM, the contractors building the National Children’s Hospital, gave them all goodie bags – the children, not the politicians. They contained pens and sweeties.

There was an ecumenical prayer service. The Church of Ireland representative cut an imposing figure, a very tall man, dressed for the weather with a voluminous black cape and a black broad brimmed hat. Some people thought he was Phil Hogan.

A few Fianna Fáilers were calling the new road the “Howlin Highway”, just to annoy the Fine Gaelers.

Countdown

After the speeches, the Taoiseach went to the other side of the road to unveil the commemorative stone. Verona hovered, but was swallowed up in the crowd. The Taoiseach didn’t see her.

Then he went further along the road, with the bridge to his back for the photos, and did the official cutting of the tape with Rose Kennedy Townsend.

Leo was wearing very shiny black leather gloves. He held his side of the tape very tightly, wielding a gold pair of scissors and braced, feet apart and firmly planted, like he was preparing to cut the umbilical cord of an alien baby. Or cut all ties with Catherine Noone.

He called for a countdown. There was silence. The junior ministers were so excited they couldn’t speak. So he had to do it himself. “5 . . . 4 . . .”

Off to one side, Verona Murphy was working the crowd. Earlier, while the Taoiseach made his speech, she stood with her back to him, talking away to a companion.

She made sure to avoid him after the formalities, yet was always nearby. He moved, she moved. Always within distance but never close enough for any form of contact.

The photographers were beside themselves. But they were to be disappointed.

When Leo left, the junior ministers melted away.

“I tell you one thing,” mused an official as they departed. “If the Irish team performs half as well in the scrum as that lot performed today, we’ll win hands down against Scotland on Saturday.”

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