Storm force: How Ministers mobilised for Ophelia

Government keen not to repeat past mistakes as Taoiseach leads the on-air response

It was one of innumerable live press conferences that occurred on Monday as Storm Ophelia progressed. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was flanked by the two Independent Ministers Shane Ross and Kevin “Boxer” Moran.

When Varadkar started taking questions, the cameras focused in on him, leaving Ross and Moran out of shot. But then a strange thing happened. Ross slowly sidled into the frame on the left hand side.

“Check your man out, dying to get on telly,” Wexford-based Gary Madden tweeted. Ross was probably only trying to get within earshot of the Taoiseach but the optics were unfortunate.

Monday was a day when it was easier to list the Ministers who were not on the airwaves, assuring the public that all was under control. They all had a role but it was hard to avoid the conclusion they were jostling for prominence.

From a communications perspective, it was a good day for the Government. There was no panic. There was a sense that all was under control, backed up by a constant stream of high-quality public safety warnings.

“We learned from our mistakes in the past,” said one official who works closely with a Minister. “And we had plenty of those.”

There are a few of those in recent memory. At the end of 2010 there was a long period of sub-zero conditions with a build-up of snow, as well as treacherous icy road conditions. It quickly emerged that gritting supplies held by local authorities were woefully inadequate. It led to traffic chaos and gridlock in Dublin. It was not helped by the then minister for transport Noel Dempsey being on holidays. It took days for the Government to regain control of the narrative.

Similarly, at the tail end of 2015, the Government was slow to react to widespread flooding. It took some days before taoiseach Enda Kenny visited the affected areas.

Flash floods

Varadkar got a foretaste of this when there were flash floods in Donegal this summer. He was criticised for waiting three days before visiting Donegal. There was a bit of a learning experience. Politics is sometimes about symbols: being present, rolling the sleeves up, or standing knee-deep in floodwater as Bertie Ahern did in Drumcondra when the River Tolka burst its banks.

This time around it was different. Met Éireann was in a position on Thursday to alert the Government about the impending storm. Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy gave the green light for the National Emergency Co-ordination Committee to meet on Friday. It met throughout Saturday and Sunday with junior Minister Damien English taking the helm.

People don't blame you for the storms. But they want a degree of reassurance. They do want to see a government doing everything possible

When Met Éireann upgraded the status of the warning to Red for the whole country on Sunday night, Murphy stepped in to take overall charge. That night, he spoke to the Taoiseach. Given it was Ireland’s most violent storm in over 50 years, it was important that he take the leading role. “It was decided the Taoiseach would attend the Monday morning meeting of the emergency committee at 10am on Monday,” said an official centrally involved.

“Obviously the Taoiseach was listening to what was going on and decided he would come back for the evening meeting.”

Live interview

In the event he sat in for the evening meeting, hosted a press conference and did a live interview with RTÉ's Six-One.

“You cannot overestimate the importance of leadership from the top,” said a politician with previous experience of such events.

During the floods of 2015, you could not find Enda Kenny for days.

“People don’t blame you for the storms. But they want a degree of reassurance. They do want to see a government doing everything possible.”

“We took a bird’s eye view of all communications,” said another official on how communications were handled this time. “It was very important that there was consistent and accurate information.

“The other thing was that everybody had to speak from the one hymn-sheet. There were many Ministers doing interviews and all of their information was co-ordinated. It worked really well.”

It was not all pre-planned. The decision to close all schools came late on Sunday night, after the status red weather alert was extended to the entire State. “We learned a bit from that,” said the official. “We were much quicker at arriving at a decision on Monday to keep the schools closed.”

For once there seemed to have been a perfect response to what was a perfect storm.