Miriam Lord: No room at the Leinster House inn for former TDs and senators

Christmas visits off the menu as Oireachtas restaurant only open to serving members

Sinn Féin TD Aengus Ó Snodaigh: like something out of a Le Carré novel. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Sinn Féin TD Aengus Ó Snodaigh: like something out of a Le Carré novel. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

This time of year, things usually go a bit mad around Leinster House. Political parties throw parties, the restaurant is heaving, the bar gets busy and everyone is in better form.

The Ceann Comhairle fires up the lights on the big tree in the middle of Leinster Lawn and the party leaders muffle up and stand together exuding collegiality and festive bonhomie. The Oireachtas choir gets a chance to strut its stuff.

You can hardly move in the narrow corridors for all the former TDs and senators back for the turkey and ham and a catch-up in the Members’ Bar, which only allows entry to serving and past Oireachtas members. Everyone else goes to the adjoining Visitors’ Bar.

This time, though, the former members are not allowed into Leinster House, which is only open to serving members, staff and media there for legitimate work reasons. This led to disappointment for the former deputies and senators who like to call in at Christmas. Some of them were politely but firmly turned away when they tried to enter their old manor.

The Visitors’ Bar is a spot where Oireachtas members can meet on neutral territory, away from nosy journalists

Finian McGrath had hoped to meet up with his old muckers – Shane Ross among them – for a bite to eat and a drink, but it wasn’t to be. Mind you, the current crop of politicians may have been reluctant to engage with the former minister formerly known as Winston Churchtown for fear of figuring in his next tell-all book.

The food offering in the Visitors’ Bar doesn’t stretch beyond soup and sandwiches at lunchtime. But in the private bar on the other side of the partition, a substantial menu of hot food is always available.

The distinction between the food served in both bars has assumed great importance recently, particularly among those politicians keen to get the ear of a minister or have a few quiet words with a colleague from a different party. The Visitors’ Bar is a spot where Oireachtas members can meet on neutral territory, away from nosy journalists patrolling the place. Covid-19 restrictions knocked that on the head.

When the country moved from Level 5 to Level 3 at the start of the month, the Oireachtas restaurant reopened for business. But the two bars remained closed. Many Government backbenchers and a substantial number of Senators began pushing behind the scenes for the Members’ Bar to reopen, arguing that it was perfectly in order as a substantial menu was available.

However, the Ceann Comhairle took the wise decision to leave matters as they are. It would not look good if the bar for mere mortals was closed while, a few metres away, the politicians could, theoretically, drink their heads off behind closed doors.

In truth, they are an abstemious lot. And the excellent staff would have ensured no rules were transgressed.

But that’s neither here nor there. As one disappointed realist put it: “If that bar was opened, we’d have been slaughtered.”

Covid briefings go from ritual to penance

It feels like the morning Covid-19 briefings in the basement of Government Buildings have been running for years. These are the jolly interludes where civil service officials brief the media on the latest measures Government departments have introduced in response to the pandemic.

At the start of the crisis, these were “must cover” events for the media. People tuned into RTÉ’s news channel for the live broadcast and more watched the proceedings as they were live-streamed by media organisations.

But as the pandemic dragged on, the rather downbeat pronouncements from Liz Canavan, assistant secretary at the Department of the Taoiseach and her colleagues became less of a draw and more of a chore.

Before this week’s sermon, a Government official was overhead shouting as he rushed out the door to make it in time: “I have to run down to the basement. I’m late for half-ten mass.”

Toning down the Christmas cards

TDs and Senators are very careful these days about spending taxpayers’ money on such fripperies as Christmas cards and calendars.

Once upon a time, and not so long ago, shrink-wrapped bundles of them were leaving Leinster House by the pallet-load. Now, the majority of politicians opt for an easier life and fund their festive flyers from their own pockets.

While the final tally hasn’t come in yet, only 16 TDs and Senators have so far opted to have the State foot the bill for their Yuletide tidings this year. Top of the list released to the Indo’s Cormac McQuinn under Freedom of Information laws are Michael Healy-Rae and Willie O’Dea, although their bulk orders costing €556 and €531 respectively aren’t a patch on the vast volumes shifted by politicians from all parties in previous years.

Now many are dubious about the value of posting this literature through constituents’ letterboxes.

“You could annoy as many voters as impress them,” said one rural backbencher. “Like, who wants Willie O’Dea’s face on their fridge?”

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan painted his own Christmas cards this year, inspired by watching the sunrise over Croagh Patrick
Green Party leader Eamon Ryan painted his own Christmas cards this year, inspired by watching the sunrise over Croagh Patrick

Green Party leader and Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan is among those who prefer not to carpet-bomb the constituency with cards.

This year the card he is sending to friends and colleagues features his painting of the sun coming up over Croagh Patrick.

“I grew up looking over my father’s shoulder as he used a pallet knife on his paintings. Every Christmas he would paint cards for his friends. I do the same thing now in his honour,” he tweeted this week, along with one of his own recent efforts. He posted some more on his Instagram page.

“I like the tradition of Christmas cards. I think we all like getting something nice in the post and it’s a way of keeping in touch with people you might not have seen in ages,” the Minister told us on Friday.

He painted the Croagh Patrick sunrise he would rise early to witness during his summer break in Co Mayo. In this time of pandemic, he thought of Derek Mahon’s comforting poem Everything Is Going to Be All Right.

“The sun rises in spite of everything

and the far cities are beautiful and bright.

I lie here in a riot of sunlight

watching the day break and the clouds flying.

Everything is going to be all right.”

Ryan says he did up 100 cards to send to people. “I love doing it. My dad used to do it. He was a very good painter. I’m useless.”

Bob Ryan, who died in 2007, was a renowned artist.

His son isn’t too bad either.

Mysterious ‘secret service’ bill has TD shaken and stirred

The Dáil signed off on the nation’s annual accounts for this year when the Appropriation Bill 2020 was debated and passed.

Describing it as “essential housekeeping”, Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath explained it was “to provide a sound legal basis for the expenditure incurred in 202O” while allowing for spending into next year until the Dáil agrees on the Estimates for 2021.

Many aspects of Government spending came under scrutiny. Sinn Féin’s Aengus Ó Snodaigh, wearing his traditional end-of-term Christmas tie, was fascinated by one large payment which goes out from the national coffers every year. It falls under the intriguing heading “secret service”.

“There is a part of the budgetary process which annually perplexes me,” he told McGrath. He can’t get any Minister “to take responsibility” for this specific allocation.

'When Alan Shatter was minister, as to what was the two million secret service [allocation] was actually spent on, he informed me it was "a secret"'

His interest goes back a long way. The only answer he ever got on the subject was from the late Brian Lenihan in 2005, and all he divulged was the annual cost for this mysterious service. But he can’t even get that much information from a Minister these days.

Over all the years, perhaps Ó Snodaigh has been thinking ahead to when his party finally gets into government, trying to get a head start on the work. On that auspicious day, after nearly two decades of asking questions, Sinn Féin will be able to find out everything about the secret service. (Or at least as much as possible after that awful fire leading to the tragic loss of so many files.)

Until then, Aengus will never stop asking.

“Why a secret service comes under Public Expenditure – not Justice, not Foreign Affairs, not Defence – is also bizarre. The fact that it doesn’t exist, isn’t accountable and still manages to spend €2 million yearly is even more bizarre,” he said to the mild-mannered Minister.

“Maybe in your concluding remarks, you could let the public know: Are you in fact the head of Ireland’s MI5, KGB or CIA, or who, in fact, is?”

A knowing smile briefly troubled McGrath’s lips as he stroked the purring white Persian on his lap. They say it’s the quiet ones you have to watch.

Ó Snodaigh said the only “glimpse” he got into the reason for the €2 million annual spend was in an email he received in 2009.

“The purpose of the secret service vote is to obtain information which is necessary for the security of the country. Given the sensitivities associated with a vote of this nature, information relating to its operation is not made public,” is what it said.

“So much for transparency,” sighed the Sinn Féin veteran, before going off on a baffling tangent. Or maybe it was his homage to thriller writer John Le Carré, who died five days earlier.

“This all has the hallmarks of a spoof spy film, although it is serious because there is money involved. But maybe you, as Minister, are being protected by the Ranger Wing at a secret international auction bidding for classified confidential documents. Maybe Leo could help you – or maybe he might be bidding against you given his skills with confidential documents.”

Michael McGrath looked puzzled.

“Minister, please ensure that sometime, somewhere, there is a discussion about this expenditure of Irish money.”

Closing the debate, McGrath ignored the question about the secret service, obviously.

But Richard Boyd Barrett pitched in.

“To be helpful to deputy Ó Snodaigh, one of the more memorable answers I got to a question on the very same matter in the Dáil, when Alan Shatter was minister, as to what was the two million secret service [allocation] was actually spent on, he informed me it was ‘a secret’.”

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