Joan turns her guns on hapless Tánaiste and stunned colleagues


DÁIL SKETCH: THE TÁNAISTE went for a Burton yesterday. And no, she didn’t have another Dáil mishap.

“Going for a Burton” has a different meaning in Leinster House.

The latest outbreak was sparked when Labour’s finance spokeswoman was needling the Government on matters fiscal – a regular occurrence these days. She had Brian Lenihan and Mary Coughlan in her sights this time.

Joan Burton drives Ministers mad. She knows her way around a balance sheet.

She comes from an accountancy background and is frustratingly numerate and relentless in her approach. If harrying a government were a recognised sport, Burton would now be in possession of a lottery grant and badgering for Ireland at the next Olympics.

Brian Cowen’s Cabinet of schoolteachers and solicitors reach for the Bisodol when Joan starts at them.

Comparisons, it is said, are odious. Lenihan seemed to agree when Burton began comparing the Taoiseach with Barack Obama. He leaned back in his seat, looking bilious.

Obama is 16 days in the job, and see what he has achieved, lectured Joan. Cowen is 273 days in the job and all he has to show for it is indecision, prevarication and a steady economic decline.

As for the banks . . . better not get her started on the banks. Ooops, too late, Brian. “Most of those early days were wasted by your baseline desire to help your friends, with whom you have become so familiar over the years of the Celtic Tiger bubble. . .”

This was just too much for the Minister for Finance. He waded in – silly boy – flinging a load of Swedes at the deputy in an effort to halt her gallop.

“The first step taken by the Swedish government in their rescue plan was to guarantee their banks. You weren’t prepared to do that last September,” he shouted across, highly agitated.

But Burton had the bit between her teeth. “Oooh! Oh sorry!” she dripped. “You were prepared to do it on an emergency basis, and at the centre of it was the rescue of Anglo, not the rescue of the banking system.”

Brian shrank back at the onslaught. Joan was in full flow, arms waving, tossing back her mane. Not only that, she countered, but he put in a weak regulator to put manners on the bankers. “I don’t think the regulator could have eyeballed the office cat in the banks!”

Seán Sherlock, who was sitting beside Joan, gulped. He’s only a new deputy. He looked a bit nervous.

Not like Tánaiste Mary Coughlan, who was shooting filthy looks across the floor and muttering encouragement to her embattled colleague.

Joan moved onto the public service pension levy. She told of a couple in her constituency – a typical middle-income family. A garda and his wife, members of “the coping classes, the people who work all their lives, who don’t really blow it on debt, they like a nice holiday, they like their kids to go to college”.

Just like average workers who vote in the Minister’s constituency.

That woman told her: “The very poor have a voice. The very rich have a voice. But middle-income families, they have no voice.”

The muttering from Coughlan became louder. Joan started to bang on about the Government’s incompetence. Mary heckled. “Utility prices are coming down!”

This was not a time to be Burton baiting. Joan swivelled on her heels and turned her guns on the Tánaiste.

Speaking of incompetence – “you couldn’t even discuss the exchequer figures yesterday, you were so unknowledgeable about what the state of the public finances is . . .”

Poor Sherlock was agog. Steam started coming out of Coughlan’s ears.

Lenihan looked at Joan and looked at Mary and looked at Joan again. He kept his mouth shut. They don’t teach you how to deal with this sort of situation in the King’s Inns.

Coughlan was raging. “You just watch it now,” she drawled, with more than a hint of menace.

The Minister for Finance studied the wall.

Young Sherlock turned green.

The Ceann Comhairle tried to defuse the situation. “You just stop it now! Stop the argy-bargy!”

Joan turned on him. Might have known John O’Donoghue would try to defend the Minister.

So then he took offence. An apology was sought. Joan apologised insincerely.

The Bull accepted it, beaming like a Buddha.

Joan had the last word, meeting the Tánaiste, glare for glare. “You didn’t know the answer to a basic and very reasonable question.”

It’ll be a while before Mary goes for a Burton again.

Sherlock is in counselling.

Still, you have to laugh in these difficult days.

A copy of a letter purporting to have come from the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources began doing the rounds yesterday.

Here it is: “A chara, due to recent economic conditions, and the rising cost of electricity, gas and oil, the light at the end of the tunnel has been turned off.

Sorry for any inconvenience.

Regards, Eamon Ryan.”