Miriam Lord's Week


Fury of a WAG scorned; Hanafin’s stock soars; pouting pack looks in vain for a leader; not-so-brain-dead Fine Gael; back in the White House; Canada’s call is an alluring one; Batt goes old school on his big day

THE FIANNA Fáil backbenchers are revolting. And so are their wives, it seems. On Tuesday evening, after Biffo knocked a lot of noses out of joint with his timid reshuffle, a seething FF WAG buttonholed a quaking senior Minister in Leinster House and read him the riot act over her husband’s treatment.

This incident happened in the busy corridor outside the bar and restaurant area, beside the doors leading into the Dáil chamber. Deputies were spilling out after voting on the new ministerial appointments, watched by a lady wearing a pink visitor’s pass and a stony expression on her face.

She pounced on the first Minister out. “Are you Batt O’Keeffe?” she demanded, knowing full well the answer. Newly promoted Batt – he went from Education to Enterprise, Trade and Innovation – answered in the affirmative. He probably thought she was going to extend her best wishes and congratulations. “She tore into him. Poor Batt nearly died,” recalls one of her husband’s colleagues, quite a few of whom decided to loiter outside the bar to watch the sport. (The angry WAG is married to a TD from the general vicinity of the southeast/midlands area.) “It was all ‘who does Brian Cowen think he is?’ and ‘how dare he give that job to the Greens?’ She was furious because her husband was passed over after all he did for the party, and that sort of thing.”

Batt, according to our gleeful informant, appeared rather embarrassed and tried to mollify the backbencher’s wife. He explained he had to wait a long time before he got the call. “I was 13 years on the backbenches,” he said, before he extricated himself and fled to the members’ bar.

But the anger didn’t stop there. It appears that the backbencher in question – having met his missus following her handbagging of the affable Batt – went off to continue the argument. In this case, he accused the Minister of insulting his wife. Eventually, everyone calmed down. But the rumbling discontent within the party hasn’t. But at least the story of Batt and the WAG provided some much needed light relief for Fianna Fáil deputies for the rest of the week.

Mary gets stuck in

One of the most interesting sideshows of the week was how the Three Marys fared after Biffo’s night of the rubber knives, and in particular, how Mary Hanafin emerged from the debacle with her reputation enhanced. Before any announcement was made on Tuesday, word leaked out that Hanafin was going to be a big loser. This came as a surprise, as commentators had talked up her prospects of landing a big economic portfolio. Her track record in Government pointed in the direction of extra responsibilities – able, hard-working, sure-footed with the media. She ticked all the boxes and also possesses what has become a rare quality in Cowen’s Government: a safe pair of hands.

She got Tourism, Culture and Sport – Minister for BBs, Balls and Gabriel Byrne (she even sat next to him at the Ireland Fund dinner in Washington last week). Initially and privately, Mary couldn’t hide her disappointment, but she marched out to the media and talked enthusiastically about her new challenge. Tourism jobs, the cultural dollar, the sporting dividend: maybe just the thing for an ambitious woman who knows how to get stuck into a project. The wave of sympathy for Hanafin must have been gratifying as a consensus emerged that the Taoiseach overlooked her abilities. But in the aftermath of the reshuffle, disaffected backbenchers quickly adopted Hanafin, using her “demotion” as a focus for their discontent with the party leader. The Minister, not two days in the job, was reportedly “livid” that her name was being used by the so-called “Awkward Squad” to further their cause. She contacted rebel deputy John McGuinness, the most vocal Cowen detractor, and told him to leave her out of his disagreements with the leadership.

Meanwhile, as Hanafin has seen her stock soar, Mary Harney knows that her continued presence in Cabinet as an Independent deputy is causing deep annoyance among many Fianna Fáilers. She had to argue yesterday why she deserves to remain in Health.

And then there’s Mary Coughlan, whose appointment to Education annoyed teachers before she even opened her mouth. The fact that her move from Enterprise was widely spoken of in political and media circles as a “demotion” raised hackles.

To be fair to Sinn Féin’s Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, he was the first to ask why Education was being seen as a step down. It doesn’t say much for the future of the smart economy.

As for Minister Coughlan, the teacher conferences are just around the corner. That should be fun, if she tries to talk down to them. I think it’s important to realise . . . they’ll ate her without salt. All in all, at the end of a turbulent week, it’s Mary Hanafin who has most to be pleased about.

Crying wolf?

Is this simmering discontent against Brian Cowen just the normal whining from the usual suspects, most of whom you wouldn’t send across the road to buy a bottle of milk, never mind hand them a ministry? Kilkenny’s John McGuinness has a track record in business and undoubted ability, but he’s becoming Fianna Fáil’s little boy who cried wolf. He makes a lot of noise, but when the time comes, he sits on his hands and sticks with the party.

Mattie McGrath has carved a national media career for himself, specialising in speaking out against the Government. But he, like McGuinness, always toes the party line. The malcontents are looking for a leader – sadly for them, nobody wants the job.

The Carlow/ Kilkenny rump are angry because Green constituency colleague Mary White got a junior ministry. Brendan Kenneally in Waterford is smarting over Seán Connick in Wexford getting the nod for a half car. These things mean a lot. Seán returned home to New Ross on Thursday night and was greeted by bonfires on the outskirts of the town, while shopfronts were decorated with messages of congratulation and a crowd gathered at the tall ship Dunbrody on the quayside to welcome their first ever local-born Minister. New Ross town council honoured him yesterday morning with a civic reception.

However, Connick is only two-and-a-half years in the Dáil. His elevation has annoyed much of the new intake, including Thomas Byrne, Michael McGrath and Chris Andrews. They aren’t the usual suspects.

Brian Cowen has also risked the support of one of this most loyal lieutenants and closest friends – John Cregan of Limerick West. Deputy Party Whip Cregan has done all that has been asked of him for over a decade and he feels hurt at being passed over. He has lost over half his constituency with the redrawn boundaries, yet has to spend a lot of time on whip duty in Leinster House while he could be home cultivating his constituents.

One reason why Cregan hasn’t been promoted might be the relationship between Cowen and party grandee in Limerick, Gerry Collins. The former minister and MEP is very close to the Taoiseach, who may not wish to upset Collins by promoting Cregan over the current family incumbent, Gerry’s nephew, Niall Collins. The parliamentary party is not a happy place at the moment. “There’s a disconnect with the leadership and a lot of discontent,” said one backbencher.

Big Phil’s big week

It’s a strange roller-coaster world.

Apart from Leo Varadkar’s unfortunate eruption about Garret FitzGerald on Wednesday, Fine Gael spent the week enjoying Fianna Fáil’s discomfiture.

It was also a week when their environment spokesman, Big Phil Hogan, came to the fore while his FF colleagues in Kilkenny were busy obsessing over Mary White’s new job. He held three press conferences over the last five days and was rarely off the airwaves.

On Monday, he launched the party’s New Politics document in which he deconstructed and reconstructed parliamentary democracy, abolished the Seanad and shortened the President’s term of office.

Vincent Browne was so impressed that he declared, for most of the week, that Fine Gael isn’t brain-dead after all.

They were chuffed in headquarters.

Then Phil published the reports on the Dublin Docklands Development Authority when Minister Gormley didn’t.

And then he had a go at the Taoiseach over his part in the DDDA’s purchase of the Irish Glass Bottle site. A measure of Big Phil’s popularity and packed schedule is that he had to cancel his appearance at the AGM of the Clogh-Moneenroe branch to do Prime Time. We hear the meeting adjourned early so they could all watch.

Ryan in his element

Despite an increase in numbers from about 350 last year to almost 500, it was still an achievement to make the guest-list for the St Patrick’s Day reception at the White House.

Familiar names included our new cultural ambassador, actor Gabriel Byrne – who was wandering about taking photographs, golfer Pádraig Harrington (name-checked by both Biffo and Obama), theatre director Garry Hynes, boxer Katie Taylor and broadcaster turned internet entrepreneur Mark Little. Ryan Tubridy, with former Rose of Tralee Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin, was in his element, given his fascination with the Kennedy family.

A monument to American dentistry, the presence of so many Kennedys announced that the Democrats are definitely back in the White House again.

Congressman Patrick Kennedy was there, as was former congressman Joe, along with William Kennedy-Smith, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Ethel Kennedy (Bobby’s widow) and Bobby jnr, who everyone said is the spit of his father.

Then there was Daniel O’Donnell – not the Donegal heart-throb of the twin-set and pearls brigade, but a member of the New York State Assembly. Donegal was represented by Pat “the Cope” Gallagher, who was part of the Taoiseach’s group.

Naturally the Adams and McGuinness double-act wowed the yanks, while the Northern contingent also included Peter Robinson, SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie and Sir Reg Empey of the UUP – but it was all very polite.

In the spirit of the day, no war of words broke out between Niall O’Dowd and Trina Vargo, who don’t always see eye-to-eye on immigration issues.

O’Dowd, who backed Hillary Clinton for the presidency, appears to be back in the picture with the Obama administration. Another influential former Hillary campaigner among Obama’s invitees was Stella O’Leary, head of the Irish American Democrats.

Hillary’s appointee as special envoy on Ireland and former Irish Examinerjournalist Declan Kelly was also at the knees-up, strengthening Irish connections with the Obama White House.

Another key Obama supporter from the president’s political home turf of Chicago, immigration reform activist Billy Lawless, enjoyed the day. He once ran in the local elections for Fine Gael in Galway.

O Canada (again)

We missed our favourite Fine Gael backbencher at last weekend’s national conference. Where was Chuck Heston lookalike, James “Bonkers” Bannon? Avid traveller James, it transpired, was off on Oireachtas Committee business to one of his favourite places – Canada.

Longford TD Bannon jetted off to Vancouver for the Globe 2010, which is one of the largest environmental trade conferences in the world.

James, who is a member of the committee on Environment, Heritage and Local Government, left last Saturday and is due home tomorrow.

He was joined two days later by fellow committee member, Mullingar Senator Camillus Glynn of Fianna Fáil, who left last Tuesday and is due back on Tuesday next.

An Oireachtas spokesman said yesterday that the committee is only paying their accommodation for the three nights of the conference.

Here’s a thing though. Both James and Camillus seem very fond of Canada.

In March of 2008, James and Camillus visited the Edmonton Waste Management Centre of Excellence International Conference on Waste – the Social Context 2008.

The following month saw James and FF deputy Michael Fitzpatrick at the biennial Globe 2008 environmental conference in Vancouver.

In June of last year, Bannon and Glynn headed off again to the land of the maple leaf, accompanied by FF deputy for Sligo, Eamon Scanlon. This time, it was the Local Governments for Sustainability World Congress 2009.

Very shortly after their return they submitted a draft report entitled Advancing Local Action for Sustainability and the committee agreed to lay it before both Houses of the Oireachtas.

And this year, it’s back to Canada again for James and Camillus. They must be leading authorities on sustainable business and international environmental issues at this stage.

Farmer and auctioneer James is his party’s junior spokesman on the environment with special responsibility for heritage.

Psychiatric nurse Camillus is Fianna’s Fáil environment spokesman in the Seanad and he has a keen interest in Irish music.

Capt Batt’s class act

Tuesday was one hell of a day for Minister Batt O’Keeffe. First, he got promoted in the Cabinet reshuffle. Then he was buttonholed by the irate wife of a snubbed backbencher. And finally, he attended a dinner organised by the class of 1963 from St Brendan’s College, Killarney.

Some people might remember 1963 as the year JFK was assassinated. But in Batt’s eyes, 1963 will forever be remembered as the year St Brendan’s lost the All-Ireland schools’ final by a point to St Mel’s of Longford.

Despite being the only Corkman on the team, Batt was the captain, displaying early leadership skills.

“I’m in the diocese of Kerry, but from the village of Cullen, which is near Millstreet on the Cork border,” he explains.

“I tried to twin Cullen with Tokyo when I was in Japan last week.”

Tuesday’s knees-up was arranged long ago and it was pure coincidence that it fell on the night of Batt’s promotion. His classmates and team-mates wanted to mark him becoming the first Cabinet Minister from St Brendan’s. The college produced a lot of high achievers in Batt’s year. Among those present on Tuesday were four former Civil Service secretaries general: Paddy Teahon, Joe Brosnan, Michael Dowling and Tim Dalton. Also present was Bill Nolan from the Department of Foreign Affairs. Bill, former Irish ambassador to Zambia and Namibia, played a big part in the Northern peace process talks.

Former Kerry footballers included DJ Crowley and Tony Barrett. Contemporaries who sent their apologies included Denis Brosnan, who was abroad; rugby great Moss Keane; and Paddy Kennelly, Brendan’s brother, who also played football for Kerry.

The high-powered group dined in Buswells Hotel, and then Batt took them to Leinster House for a digestif. He “felt that their education wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the Dáil bar.”