Miriam Lord: What the actual...? Martin blooded as Taoiseach after he wields axe on Cowen

Martin knew he could not keep defending minister who would not defend himself in Dáil

Minister for Agriculture Barry Cowen has been sacked by Taoiseach Micheál Martin who told the Dáil that the Offaly TD would no longer serve in Cabinet arising from continuing controversy over his drink-driving conviction. Video: RTE News/Oireachtas TV

 

And suddenly the Taoiseach was in the House.

What the actual . . . ?

Coming up on nine o’clock on a Tuesday evening. Scarcely a soul in the Dáil chamber.

A torpedo into the night-time torpor.

Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl paved the way. “I understand now that the Taoiseach has an announcement to make for the interest of the House,” he said, rubbing his tired eyes.

And with that Micheál Martin wielded the axe and sacked the minister for agriculture. Three weeks into his new role and a man down already.

He is blooded as Taoiseach.

“The President, on my advice this evening, terminated the appointment of Deputy Barry Cowen as a member of the Government.”

The few journalists left in Leinster House snapped to attention and scrambled to the phones. The few TDs still on the premises stopped dead in their tracks.

Nobody expected this, not when the Taoiseach appeared to be standing by his minister earlier in the day during Leaders’ Questions when the Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald gave him a severe buffeting over the curious circumstances surrounding the drink-driving offence committed four years ago by Barry Cowen which saw him get a fine and a three-month driving ban.

But the fact that Micheál Martin was forced to make excuses for his absent minister on the floor of the Dáil because there were certain aspects of the case he was unwilling to publicly discuss did not look well.

Questions would continue to be asked, whether or not his minister for agriculture was waiting for a report from Gsoc onto a Garda report on the incident at the time, the details of which he learned about only recently and which he vehemently disputes.

Still. Micheál – always seen as something of a ditherer when he was a minister himself. A man who was mocked for his fondness for commissioning reports when action was required. Did he have the steel required for the top job?

After Tuesday’s Leaders’ Questions, did he review the video and see how Cowen, who is entitled to do what he must to vindicate his good name, had left him exposed? How, no matter how much he might explain the background to his minister’s refusal to address the outstanding questions about what happened on that night after he drove home from the All-Ireland final, it would still end up with him taking the flak for him in the House.

Accused of kicking to touch. Circle the wagons. Invoke the gods of Gsoc. Call for a report. Unwise to comment now, let the inquiry take its course. Same old Fianna Fáil.

So he moved and moved quickly.

“This is a very sad day for Barry, his family and for me,” he told a hushed Dáil. Hushed, because nobody was there. But in offices around the complex, the TV volume was suddenly cranking up.

Barry had been a very committed, diligent and dedicated public representative, but he had no choice under the circumstances but to withdraw the appointment he made less than a month earlier.

Decision welcomed

If it took the wind out of Opposition sails for a moment, it didn’t for too long. Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty and Labour leader Alan Kelly were first out on to the plinth in the falling darkness to welcome the Taoiseach’s decision and then demand to know what he heard in the interim to change his mind.

Micheál Martin knew he couldn’t keep defending a minister who wouldn’t defend himself in the Dáil.

He also knew, from his experience earlier in the day, that the tenacity of McDonald and Kelly would see them harrying him on the issue at a time he wanted to make his mark for entirely different and far more agreeable reasons.

He had to take a stand.

As it is, Government Buildings is like a tenement now that Fianna Fáil has moved back in.

Dirty linen already hanging from windows along the ministerial corridor.

The place is dangerously overcrowded, with offices packed beyond reasonable capacity and more tenants on the way.

In one heartbreaking case, three “super junior” Ministers are expected to eke out a wretched living with just two €16,280 salary upgrades between them. How can this go on in a first-world country?

At least the Taoiseach is determined to see what he can do to help.

“In my view there should be equality between the three,” Micheál Martin told the Dáil on Tuesday afternoon as the grateful sobs of Dara Calleary, Hildegarde Naughten and Pippa Hackett reverberated around Kildare Street.

“I’m not going to tip-toe around that,” declared Micheál, making it sound like the remuneration of a trio of mid-ranking Ministers is the hill he is willing to die on.

Three growing families now live on the same floor – the FFers, the FGers and the Greens. Conditions are horrendous. They watch each other like hawks. Petty political larceny is rife. Two aides de camp and a chief of protocol are sleeping in the one bed and advisers are growing up the walls.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs is sleeping in his car using his socially-distanced Garda driver for warmth, for fear both car and driver might be taken away from him now he is in reduced circumstances and isn’t tánaiste anymore.

Some of the dirty washing belongs to disgruntled Fianna Fáil politicians who didn’t get government jobs when the new administration was appointed. But most of it – until Tuesday night – belonged to Cowen because of the unfolding saga surrounding his drink-driving ban.

The Opposition tried to put it through the wringer in the Dáil chamber, but to no avail. An attempt earlier in the day to bring Cowen in for questioning was voted down by the Government for the second week in a row.

Regardless of the rights or wrongs, it didn’t look good, particularly when the new Taoiseach was forced to keep accounting for his absent minister for agriculture’s actions.

Advisers

It must have been a relief for the Taoiseach to escape to the more familiar territory of government jobs for the boys and girls – a hardy annual for all leaders down through the years, although this new Government has been handing out the goodies with unbridled enthusiasm.

The Sinn Féin and Labour leaders couldn’t help noticing the number of advisers getting roles with the various Ministers – senior, super junior and junior.

In what Mary Lou McDonald quaintly called “additionality” they wondered if it was really necessary for the Tánaiste’s office to have “five or six” special advisers on top of the ones already in the department, with Greens leader Eamon Ryan getting “four or five” special advisers and Dara Calleary, the chief whip, getting “two” of his own.

Alan Kelly was incensed. “Let me just say this, straight up here, it is also, frankly, a joke that the Minister for Foreign Affairs is going to cost the taxpayer 200k because of – all the things! – he wants a head of protocol, a Garda car and a Garda driver.”

“This is a tripartite government,” explained the Taoiseach. Everyone has to get a fair crack of the whip.

“I’m concerned we now have a holy trinity of Taoiseach,” quipped Mary Lou. (Would that be father and elder statesman Micheál, son and pup-after-his-job Leo Varadkar and the spirit-like Eamon Ryan?)

They’ll have to build an extension with all the new jobs. And the Taoiseach reminded Mary Lou that Sinn Féin is very fond of its special advisers in the North while he reminded Alan that the Labour party “was the architect of the idea” to bring in advisers back in the 1990s.

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