Cabinet of curiosities fails to reveal secrets

Enda Kenny delivered a speech in praise of the dairy industry when all waited on news of draft legislation on abortion


As is often the case in the Dáil, all the real action was taking place off campus. But what exactly was happening at the Cabinet meeting, where draft legislation for abortion was being discussed? What was taking them so long?

The Cabinet meeting doesn’t usually run over time. Most weeks, the Ministers are out of Government Buildings well in time for lunch. But not yesterday. Leinster House was awash with rumour. But the Cabinet did nothing to dampen down speculation of a rift between the Coalition partners on the issue.

Cheap seats
In early afternoon, they adjourned their deliberations so Enda and some of his Ministers could bask in the warm glow of a major jobs announcement across in the Westbury Hotel.

Here’s a funny thing: the room was all set up for the press conference outlining Glanbia’s plan to set up a new dairy plant on the Waterford-Kilkenny border. The name plates were arrayed along the top table, so the main players could be easily identified. Along with key executives from the Glanbia, the stellar cast also included Enda, along with Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore and Ministers Simon Coveney and Richard Bruton.

But then, before proceedings began, somebody came along and removed the Labour leader’s nameplate. The rumour mill went into overdrive. Eventually, a breathless Taoiseach made his entrance. Due to pressure of time (Leaders’ Questions was due to begin back in Leinster House in half an hour) it was announced that Enda wouldn’t be sticking around after his speech. This was greeted by some cynical snorts from the cheap seats.

The room was heaving with journalists. The expected complement of business and agriculture correspondents had been joined by a battalion of political correspondents. The sort of people who don’t get excited about big developments in the dairy sector, as a rule. They were ones snorting at the news of Enda’s time problems. But the man from Glanbia was delighted with the turnout. It just goes to show, he said, that the media likes to cover good news announcements. We detected a touch of irony in his voice.

Enda delivered his speech, praising the dairy industry as “a vital cog in rural Ireland”. The political reporters sat on their hands.

The Taoiseach came to the end of his address. His handlers moved forward, ready to escort him from the room. Enda shot from the podium, but not as fast as TV3’s intrepid Ursula Halligan, who shot from her seat brandishing a microphone. She bellowed out her question. Where stands the Cabinet now on the abortion legislation?

Stopped in his tracks
Enda was stopped in his tracks, and, as if pulled by an invisible string, glided back to the lectern. “Actually, I tell you, I’ll answer the question for you,” he declared.

“I know you’re bursting with excitement. The Cabinet actually considered 28 items this morning before we got to the, er, to another item, and we just didn’t have time to get through all the discussion . . . ”

Ursula swiftly followed through. Are there problems? “Listen,” smiled the Taoiseach, “there is never a problem in this Government because we’ll face into it and deal with it as you would expect us to . . . ” And with that, he was raced out of the hotel, stopping only to shake Ursula’s hand. Rather too vigorously, it has to be said. Perhaps Enda was just grateful she didn’t assault him, as his handlers famously imagined last year when she had the temerity to ask him a hard question. At least he didn’t trip over a flowerpot this time.

Air of unreality
Back in the Dáil, there was an air of unreality about Leaders’ Questions. It was clear that minds were on another matter – whether or not there was a Cabinet rift over the draft Bill on abortion. Pat Rabbitte sat next to Enda, smiling away to himself as if relishing the fact that he and his fellow Ministers were the cause of so much speculation.

The Fianna Fáil leader talked about morale in the Garda Síochána. But nobody seemed to be paying attention. Because of the subject under discussion, the Taoiseach came over all Templemore as he waffled his reply, which consisted of him trying to set a record for the most mentions of the word “veh-heh-kill” into a Dáil reply.

Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald waited her turn. As she did, Fine Gael backbencher Peter Mathews padded ponderously down to his pew in the front row. Mary Lou gave him a long, hard look. Was she possibly thinking about his astonishing performance the night before on Vincent Browne’s show? Peter does not agree with his Taoiseach’s view that there needs to be legislation brought in to give effect to the Supreme Court judgement in the X case.

In the course of the programme, Peter was asked if a woman should be allowed choose what course to take if she is told that continuing with her pregnancy will result in long-term health problems. After numerous attempts to sidestep the question, he delivered himself of the following pronouncement: “But sure, we’re all going to end up dead anyway.”

No wonder Mary Lou was looking at him yesterday like he had wandered in from another planet. “I understand that the legislation for X was discussed today at Cabinet. Why is there an ongoing delay in the publication of the heads of the Bill? I want the Taoiseach to explain what precisely is happening at Cabinet,” she asked.

Enda decided to explain how Cabinet was exceptionally busy yesterday morning with 28 issues up for consideration. “I’ll be frank” he said, explaining how the delay was all down to time constraints. Although the way he had it, there didn’t seem too much for the Cabinet to do, other than give “legal clarity and certainty” to the X case ruling.

“No new rights will be conferred but legal clarity and certainty will be given. This is about saving the lives of women and their unborn babies, with due regard to what the Constitution says and what was determined by the Supreme Court. Work on the matter will continue later this evening.”

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