Dáil hails Three Marys not so full of grace under Opposition fire


DÁIL SKETCH: The Two Brians were nowhere to be seen as Fine Gael and Labour got the maul rolling

WITH THE help of God and a young policeman, Tánaiste Mary Coughlan made good her escape from Leinster House. It hadn't been a good morning.

The Taoiseach and his Minister for Finance were away in Brussels and the Tánaiste had been left to mind the shop. But she couldn't cope on her own with the rowdy Order of Business. So in the absence of the Two Brians, Dáil Éireann got the Three Marys.

As it turned out, this provided scant comfort to fretting Fianna Fáil backbenchers - not to mention all those anxious pensioners in their constituencies. At this stage, they were well into Three Hail Mary territory over the medical cards fiasco.

Coughlan should have expected fireworks at the Order of Business. She should have been ready for the best the Opposition could throw at her. But she didn't inspire confidence.

Tuesday's abolition of automatic medical cards for all citizens over the age of 70 provoked a furious reaction from pensioners and their families. Their anger saw Opposition politicians emerge as among the few winners from the Budget.

As the hostile public reaction intensified, it didn't take a genius to work out that, come Thursday, the Opposition would be enthusiastically wielding the cudgels on behalf of the "angry" and "confused" pensioners.

Which is exactly what they did. With gusto. "Expect a rolling maul this morning," whispered a Labour adviser before the off.

Those Fianna Fáil backbenchers who had the stomach to turn up sat disconsolately. Perhaps they were only there to get some respite from their mobiles. A striking feature around Leinster House from early on was the sight of deputies from all parties talking animatedly into their phones.

They were fielding calls from both their constituency staff and overwrought pensioners.

"What ages are they?" "How much?" "I understand." "Ring her back." "Write this down quick." "Tell him he's grand." "I'll get back to you on that." "It's not finalised yet." "Oh, for Jaysus' sake!"

In a way, the numbed Fianna Fáil backbenchers could empathise with the old folk. They too were angry and confused. What on earth was happening? How in God's name had their party upset the pensioners? They love the pensioners. They've always been great with the pensioners. Since when did they become so out of touch, for a measly €100 million?

Fine Gael got the maul rolling. "Stupid, callous, own goal," said Enda Kenny. "You've put the fear of God into the old people," said Jim O'Keeffe. "Trampling on the old people of this country," said Dinny McGinley. "You made a hames of the driving testing," said James Bannon. "Shush James!" said Fine Gael.

Labour piled in behind. "Old people are worried," said Eamon Gilmore. "The banks will claim a €100 million back from their customers, but the old age pensioners won't be able to claim their money back from anybody," said Joan Burton.

Fine Gael's Michael Ring, who regularly regales the Dáil with heart-rending tales of the latest "poor wida woman" he's met while traversing the byways of Mayo, was near apoplectic. "They put the old people on bicycles and took the medical cards off them!"

Across the floor, Government deputies sighed. They didn't need the Opposition to tell them the situation was a shambles - they were living it.

Mary Coughlan tried to explain. But she was contradicted at every turn. She whispered constantly to Mary Harney, who was sitting beside her. When a vote was called, Mary H had to move to her designated seat in the next section. She stayed there when hostilities resumed and Mary C was grilled again about the legislation underpinning the medical card measure.

The Tánaiste looked over at Mary H with pleading eyes. The Minister came back to sit beside her. Mary C, apparently unaware that Charlie McCreevy had made changes to the eligibility threshold in 1999, seemed to be seeking guidance from Mary H.

After a quick confab with the more experienced Minister for Health, she began talking about "the context of a methodology".

The Opposition berated her for what they saw as her lack of understanding.

Coughlan, after another consultation with Mary Harney, then said that Minister for Social and Family Affairs Mary Hanafin would be looking after the legislation. Hanafin, you can't blame her, said nothing.

"Too many Marys!" taunted the Opposition. Some of them have now taken to referring to Mary Coughlan as Sarah Palin. As in "I understand foreign policy - I can see Derry from my window."

"The problem with the three Marys," chortled a Labour deputy in the corridor afterwards, "is that Mary Harney started it, Mary Coughlan doesn't understand it and Mary Hanafin is trying to run a mile from it."

Straight after the Order of Business, Mary Palin had to face another unruly group of politicians at a Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting.

She told fuming backbenchers that she would make Brian Cowen put manners them if they spoke out publicly about their disquiet.

Afterwards, the Government chief whip took to the plinth to give a briefing on the meeting, which had been addressed by Mary Harney. "Very businesslike" said the emollient Pat Carey. Over 30 people spoke over the course of two hours. They were "very rational." "Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meetings don't do angry," said Pat loftily, even though everyone knows they keep a pressure hose handy for when they need to wash the blood off the walls.

Tánaiste Palin wasn't around to witness Pat's magnificently low-key performance. She didn't talk to the media. She was asked if she would by a reporter as they both went through the revolving doors. Instead, when she reached the exit, she looked to her left, saw a uniformed garda and requested him to escort her straight to the gate.

Dem pensioners can be vicious when riled.