Miriam Lord: Working-class hero shouts down the Culchie Whisperers

Labour TD reminds Rural Independents they don’t have a monopoly on country matters

In a tetchy Dáil exchange Labour TD Duncan Smith labelled the Healy-Rae brothers as “working class caricatures”. Video: Oireachtas TV

 

The act is down to a fine art and people are well used to it by now.

It’s easy to anticipate the lines. Nobody really reacts anymore.

“Usually, what they say is water off a duck’s back to most of us, or all of us, in this House” sighed Labour’s Duncan Smith.

But not this time. On Wednesday in the Dáil, he snapped.

It was a riveting contribution from a TD who finally had enough of the blustering son-of-the-soil schtick practiced by the Healy-Rae brothers and their political stablemates.

The Rural Independents’ well-worn USP is that they understand country people better than anybody else. They are parliament’s self-appointed Culchie Whisperers who regularly interpret the ways of the rural man and woman for mystified Jackeens and townies who have it in for this dreadfully marginalised group in Irish society.

Smith’s excoriating attack on the Healy-Raes was a standout moment; not only because of what he had to say but for the heartfelt and passionate way he said it. That degree of honest emotion is quite rare in Dáil Éireann.

He was Labour’s last speaker in the debate on his party’s motion to introduce a tough anti-Covid approach called a National Aggressive Suppression Strategy.

Labour leader Alan Kelly regretfully told the Taoiseach that while his party entered willingly into a living-together arrangement, it just didn’t work out. After the experiences of the past year and particularly over Christmas, the concept of Living with Covid just isn’t possible, he said. Instead, the virus should be ruthlessly suppressed and we should move “with panzer-like speed” to tackle flare-ups when they happen.

The majority of Opposition speakers agreed the time has come to go in all guns blazing and take out the virus. One last big sacrifice, one last strict lockdown, allowing the country to open up for the long term.

‘Bonkers’

Labour admitted getting its Covid-19 response wrong by calling the clampdown on the hospitality industry last year “bonkers”. The party has seen the error of its ways.

With Kelly and his Labour crew making a virtue of their humility, those politicians who championed a zero-Covid strategy way back last year when it wasn’t a popular call, struggled not to sound too superior.

Of course, this wasn’t about political point-scoring. But nonetheless, Richard Boyd Barrett was entitled to a smidgen of vindication, which he wasn’t slow to accept. They wanted zero from the start, unlike others he could name, and duly did.

Time to call a spade a spade, he said. Roísín Shortall and the Social Democrats have been consistent in questioning the Government strategy from the outset, along with Solidarity-People Before Profit, Thomas Pringle and Catherine Connolly.

Solidarity-People Before Profit have a snappy new slogan. “We can be Zero,” cried Murphy, channelling his inner Bowie. And not for one day either

Richard didn’t mention Sinn Féin. But his colleague Paul Murphy told that party it “should get off the fence”.

“Sinn Féin supports a maximum suppression strategy,” David Cullinane told the Dáil, one of six successive SF speakers.

Réada Cronin: “Sinn Féin has advocated for aggressive suppression from the start.”

Martin Browne: “Sinn Féin has been consistent in advocating a maximum suppression strategy for Covid-19.”

They must have forgotten their leader Mary Lou McDonald arguing last November that people should be allowed return to Ireland for Christmas, classing it as “essential travel” while calling in September for pubs and restaurants in Dublin to remain open.

Back with Solidarity-People Before Profit – they have a snappy new slogan. “We can be Zero,” cried Murphy, channelling his inner Bowie. And not for one day either.

But members of the Rural Independent Group united in their opposition to the plan.

There was a slight meeting of minds on the need for a mandatory travel ban, although Michael Healy-Rae sniffed Labour is only saying what “we were saying 10 months ago about inward travel into the country.”

Then he took aim at the party and its suppression strategy.

‘Wilderness’

Labour is “in the wilderness” searching for an issue to make itself relevant. “They haven’t a clue.” Sure what do they know about workers or small businesses or people trying to keep the shop door open?

Across the floor, Duncan Smith, TD for Dublin Fingal and the man scheduled to close the debate, winced.

It’s becoming a habit of late for Danny’s microphone to be muted because he has gone overtime and yet again, he was left booming into the void from his perch on the balcony

Danny Healy-Rae was next. Labour has no idea of the mental toll lockdowns have on people living in rural places. “Ye don’t realise that because ye are far removed from what goes on in rural Ireland.”

And what about people trying to build a house who can’t get a plumber or a carpenter now? “Do you realise that people need to finish off their homes and to put a roof over their heads? Or do you want to keep them in the wilderness for longer? Is that what ye are about?” he roared.

It’s becoming a habit of late for Danny’s microphone to be muted because he has gone overtime and yet again, he was left booming into the void from his perch on the balcony as the debate moved on.

When his turn came, Duncan Smith may have been in favour of a national aggressive suppression strategy but he couldn’t stretch to a personal exasperation suppression strategy.

He let fly.

“What really got me in this debate today was the contributions from the Healy-Raes. Both of them. I am absolutely disgusted because it hit me personally.” Normally he isn’t bothered by what they say, but he couldn’t let them away with having a go at Labour, saying they didn’t understand working people or don’t know about having a carpenter come to the house to fix a job.

“Well, I’m the son of a carpenter. I’m not the son of Fianna Fáil privilege and millions and millions of euro,” he began, as people snapped to attention.

“I remember, as a kid in the ’80s, having to take any work going, hanging doors in Finglas just to put a roof over our heads and food on the table. I remember that. I spent my teenage years working on sites, filling skips. Did they?

“Or were they driving their Mercedes into their big plant hire shops, walking past all of their machinery, worth hundreds of thousands, to count all their money or to count up all their properties?”

Bellowing

The bellowing began above on the balcony. Danny Healy-Rae, highly affronted, was on his feet and roaring.

Smith suddenly wheeled around, arm outstretched, pointing straight at him. Furious. “YOU had your chance. YOU had your chance.”

The outraged spluttering continued from above.

“Sit. Down. Deputy.” hissed the Labour TD, unable to hide his disgust.

DHR was incandescent. But his protests went unheeded.

The Ceann Comhairle intervened. “Deputy Smith has the floor. Please let him conclude.”

And, by God, did he conclude, with genuine anger in his voice.

“I’m not going to be lectured on understanding workers. I do not have to put on a political costume and a caricature to pretend I am working class, like some,” he seethed, with the slightest nudge of his hand in the direction of the Healy-Raes. “They do, right?”

He passionately pushed the “pro-worker motion” which the brothers might understand if they bothered to read it or “if they took one second to remove themselves from their own regressive politics” and constant pursuit of “a narrow conservative agenda”.

It’s letting down the people of Kerry and the workers they claim to represent, thundered the first-time TD.

“We will work together and we will admit when we are wrong and we will move forward”.

A terrific Dáil Slam Duncan from Deputy Smith.