Miriam Lord’s Week: Ross gets support from familiar source

Shane Ross versus Trump, a mum in the Dáil, Enda’s tall tales, the curlew and earwigging

Minister for Transport and Sport Shane Ross: all ears  when it comes to strong regional accents. Photograph: Alan Betson

Minister for Transport and Sport Shane Ross: all ears when it comes to strong regional accents. Photograph: Alan Betson


Talk of a big bust-up in the Independent Alliance this week centred on a “heated argument” in the Dáil bar between Shane Ross and Finian McGrath over the Taoiseach’s decision to accept Donald Trump’s invitation to the White House next month.

Ross was the only Minister at Cabinet to urge Enda Kenny not to travel and he was rather miffed that McGrath, his companion-in-arms, didn’t back him up. The issue surfaced again over morning coffee in the Members’ Bar, with loud words reportedly exchanged between the two. The Alliance’s version is that it wasn’t a row, but a vigorous slagging match over a letter published in that morning’s Irish Times.

It came from a Ruth Buchanan of Enniskerry, Co Wicklow, who outlined her reasons why the Taoiseach should not travel to Washington on our behalf. She concluded: “This is not the sort of president who deserves an honour from the people of this country. We have had a special relationship with the US for generations, despite some uncomfortable moments. I, for one, do not want a special relationship with Donald Trump. I am asking the Taoiseach to cancel his visit to the White House. Instead we could issue an invitation to Mr Trump to meet our President, Michael D Higgins. A visit to Áras an Uachtaráin could see him dispatched with a flea in his ear.”

Broadcaster and journalist Buchanan is Shane Ross’s wife. And in the bar on Tuesday morning, McGrath began taunting him about getting his missus to fight his battles for him. (Nothing of the sort, it must be stressed.) Ross got quite annoyed. The couple are each passionate in their own right when it comes to opposing the visit.

It’s probably just as well that wind-up merchant McGrath didn’t know at the time that Carol Hunt, the Minister for Transport’s media adviser, phoned RTÉ’s Morning Ireland at the crack of dawn to alert What It Says in the Papers to the newsworthy presence of a letter from the Minister’s wife, no less, calling for Kenny to stay at home.

Alas, it didn’t get a mention.

Still, political correspondents were cheered to discover that Carol, a former Sunday Independent journalist who unsuccessfully ran in Dún Laoghaire for the Independent Alliance, actually exists and is in possession of a working phone. “She might return some of our calls now” said one.

Dáil maternity

It’s been quite the year for Fianna Fáil’s Niamh Smyth. A member of Cavn County Council at the start of 2016, she thought she had missed her chance to make it on to the general election ticket. So she continued on with her community work and her job as an arts and education officer in the Cavan Monaghan area, enjoying her third year of married life with Galwayman James Conaty. Then came the call from HQ.

“I was only added to the ticket four weeks before polling day – the very last candidate to be added.”

After the campaign whirlwind, she found herself in Leinster House as a first-time TD for Cavan Monaghan. So far, so exciting. #“Dail Eireann put me on a real learning curve. Then I discovered I was expecting. An election baby – it was a complete shock.”

Now, a year on from that surprise call from party headquarters, she is Fianna Fáil’s Dáil spokesperson on arts and heritage and a first-time mother to boot. She can hardly believe it. Baby Juliet arrived 10 days early in November, the best surprise of all. As president of the Fianna Fáil Women’s Network, she is fast-learning that political life at national level poses particular challenges for mothers.

She was back in the Dáil before Christmas, three weeks after Juliet’s birth, and returned to Leinster House for business as usual in January. When she was pregnant, Niamh checked with the authorities to see if there are any arrangements in place for women in her situation who need to take some time off. TDs clock-in for work at Leinster House. “I was told that they haven’t really any provisions in that regard for expectant and new mothers. They said I could get a sick cert. ‘But I’m not sick’, I told them. They were very sympathetic, in fairness to them.”

Niamh’s mother comes up to Dublin to mind Juliet when she occasionally takes her into the office. And she is lucky to have her parents living nearby and they mind Juliet when mum is in the Dáil.

But facilities are poor in Leinster House for women like Niamh. “I’m sure we can improve things here for mothers. I think we need to go a step further and think about what we could do. There are plenty of women who have left politics because it’s become too difficult to be a mother and a full-time representative,” she says.

“Unfortunately, until we have the critical mass of women in Leinster House, it’s going to be very difficult to get anything done.”

In the meantime, little Juliet is happily clocking up the mileage around the constituency and attending meetings with mum. As for Niamh, her main worry about becoming a first-time mother along with becoming a first-time TD is very telling. “I knew I was well capable of doing both but I was concerned about how people might perceive me, and if they start thinking it could limit what I can do. Because it’s not, and I hope they can see that now too.”

Eye to eye

Enda’s Mobile Phone Corner (and folksy encounter) of the Week. This was at the launch of the National Planning Framework in Maynooth as he neared the end of a long, wide-ranging and partly bewildering speech.

“When I was coming down today here . . . I got the old phone call on the mobile phone. Fella sez to me from Achill: ‘You’re goin’ to America, he said.’ ‘Erra, I am, yeah.’ He said: ‘I’ve a bit of a problem with the pension.’ (American pension, he’s bilateral.) And I said, ‘Yes, John. What do you want me to do? ‘You must raise it with Trump, he said.’”

Enda and his phone. Gas. We hope he told “John” from Achill that first he intends to raise a few welts on the presidential hide with a hurley.

When asked in the Dáil on Tuesday about his forthcoming St Patrick’s Day visit to the White House, the Taoiseach insisted he would not shy away from giving Trump a good telling-off about his highly controversial immigration measures.

They will speak “eye to eye” and stern Enda will say his piece. Oh, yes. “It is not politics as usual anymore. Senior hurling has gone global. In that sense, we’ve got to stand up for what we believe in and politicians and leaders can differ.”

Fightin’ talk. But realistically, what can he really do?

There is always the time-honoured tactic employed by streetwise political handlers with a hissy-fitting Taoiseach or Minister demanding that some insolent hack be hauled over the coals for disrespecting their magnificence.

The world-weary factotum duly mentions their boss’s discombobulation to the culprit, who takes no notice, and they get on with their conversation.

Handler then returns with a rip-roaring account of how strips were torn off the media miscreant who was rendered a quivering wreck and will never be bold again.

Private meeting. Who’s to know?

The Taoiseach is already noted for his Tales-of-the-Unexpected private conversation. “I met a fella in the White House the other day and he was holding a bowl of shamrock in his two little hands and I took out the aul hurley and gave him a good schmack across the arse and I said to him, I sez: ‘Look it here, Donie, the people of Ireland are not going to....” Washington. March 17th. The best senior hurling. It’s gonna be great. TremEnda.

Launch of the Week

It may have been lost among all the high-falutin’ jobs, spatial and rural programme launches, but an announcement from the Department of Arts Heritage Rural Regional and Gaeltacht Affairs gets our vote. It flew under the radar a bit. “Minister Humphreys announces establishment of curlew taskforce.” Curlew numbers are in serious decline and the national breeding population has fallen to below 150 pairs. The Minster is “hopeful that by working together and in particular by supporting positive initiatives for the bird, we can save the curlew”. Best of success to all involved.

Heroine of the Week

That civil servant from the Department of Sport (a Shane Ross outpost) who had to sit next to him during a Sports Committee hearing on Wednesday and prompt him all the way.

Ross was highly entertaining at the meeting due to his range of confused and perplexed expressions when listening to contributions from Louth’s Peter Fitzpatrick (FG) and Cork East’s Kevin O’Keefe. Both men have very strong regional accents, which led to a lot of leaning forward and straining to listen from Ross.

At one point while O’Keefe was speaking, he turned to junior minister Patrick O’Donovan, who offered to come back on his own at a later date and answer more questions, gave him a helpless look and asked “Did you get that?” As for the hardworking civil servant, she did her best to keep her Minister up to speed, handing him a steady supply of documents and doing her best to whisper information in his ear. “Yah, yah. Speak up! Can’t hear you!” hissed Ross on more than one occasion, to the amusement of those around him, if not his patient official.

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