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What was Micheál Martin thinking arguing banks were not bailed out?

Inside Politics: It’s been the type of year that has torn our hearts and hair equally

There was a moment on Tuesday when it looked like for once we would have a pedestrian and humdrum political week. It came right after Brian Stanley’s statement. You could almost hear the air fizzing out of the political football that had been kicked and bounced around all year.

It was illusory. By Wednesday morning normal service had resumed. Covid numbers are rising again. Hauliers have found themselves caught in infinitely long tailbacks around Dover even before Brexit commences.

After not having his finest hour defending the non-payment of student nurses, Micheál Martin makes the rookie mistake of starting an argument he can’t win – with a claim banks were not bailed out a decade ago.

New documents disclosed by the Department of Justice suggest Helen McEntee has more explaining to do on the process surrounding the appointment of Séamus Woulfe to the Supreme Court. The Greens got into nostalgic mode too, reviving the divisions that tore the party apart in the summer.

It’s been that kind of a year, one that has torn our hearts and torn our hair in equal measures. And there are few political parties that will go into the Christmas recess without having to lick their wounds.

Prime among those is Fianna Fáil. It's the largest party in the Dáil, the leading party in Government and its leader is Taoiseach. But it's had a terrible year. Martin has grown into the role a lot after a shaky start but he is prone to bickering and it does him no good. What was he thinking making the argument that banks were not bailed out?

As Jennifer Bray and Marie O’Halloran report, Martin had a go at Richard Boyd-Barrett in the Dáil for his statement that the banks were bailed out to the tune of €64 billion. Martin made a jesuitical argument saying the banks’ shareholders lost out. Most ordinary people won’t make that nuanced distinction. What they saw back then was the Government pumping billions into the banks. Prop-up? Bailout? There was little difference in their eyes. What’s more is it draws attention back to the authors of that misfortune, which was his own party. Martin said it was not a popular argument to make. He was right. It was not a good argument to make either.

Trouble at mill too over in Fine Gael. A release of documents to The Irish Times shows that Helen McEntee requested the appointment of Séamus Woulfe to come before Cabinet five days before she consulted with senior figures in Government, as she is required to do before bringing it to Cabinet. In her statement to the Dáil she also did not mention that she wanted to bring the matter to Government on July 6th, but then changed her mind.

And by the way, all of us political correspondents will be answering your questions in our annual special "Ask Us Anything" Inside Politics podcast, which we are recording Thursday afternoon. If you have any questions send them to politicspodcast@irishtimes.com.

The rebounding ball that is Covid-19

And just when we began to pat ourselves on the back for reducing Covid figures, evidence is emerging of a new wave with the R number creeping above one and over 431 cases reported on Wednesday. In addition, the Taoiseach has expressed concern about the levels been seen in the North and the spillover effect it might have for Border counties. Jack Horgan-Jones and Gerry Moriarty report that restrictions will be eased from Friday despite growing concern over infection numbers on both sides of the Border.

The Greens too have had ripples of tension this week, this time over the controversial CETA (Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement) trade deal between Canada and the EU. Of concern to environmental and public health campaigners is a dispute resolution mechanism for trade that operates outside the legal systems. These tribunals in the past have allowed companies to sue Governments for introducing sensible public health and environmental laws on the grounds it has a negative impact on their trade.

Alice Mary Higgins and Lynn Ruane led an extraordinary debate against CETA in the Seanad several years ago. Two Green TDs, including Neasa Hourigan and Patrick Costello, indicated they would vote against ratification if it came up in the Dáil this week. However, the vote has been deferred to January.

In an unusual move all four Cabinet ministers in the party issued a joint letter on Wednesday saying that a European Court of Justice ruling, as well as signed protocols between Canada and Europe, had allayed their concerns that the environment and public health would be subservient to these tribunals. That deliberate show of unity – the first time really since entering government – will be seen as enough to avoid a damaging split on the issue.

Best Reads

Miriam Lord captures Micheál Martin's Dáil contribution perfectly in her column.

“For there it was, Micheál’s amazing Christmas Clanger, all shiny and new and completely unexpected.

“When Richard (Boyd-Barrett) posted his letter to the North Pole asking for ‘a Che Guevara PlayStation game, a new check shirt, a megaphone and a surprise’, he never in his wildest dreams thought the surprise would be a Fianna Fáil Taoiseach standing up in Dáil Éireann and declaring that the €64 billion State rescue package for the banks in 2008, which happened on Fianna Fáil’s watch and pauperised the nation, was not a ‘bailout’.”

Simon Carswell reports on tailbacks and side-stacking of Irish lorries at British ports even ahead of Brexit.

In the Inside Politics podcast, European Correspondent Naomi O'Leary gives a great assessment of the prospects for a Brexit deal.

Tony Holohan warns that the infection is now moving in the wrong direction and that's even before restrictions are eased on travel and gatherings.

Playbook

Dáil
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar will take Leaders' Questions on a day on which the Dáil sits until midnight. The Taoiseach has also indicated there will be weekly Cabinet meetings during the Christmas recess to monitor the number of Covid-19 cases.

There will be statements on the Covid-19 vaccine task-force as well as on Brexit readiness – the two great topics of 2020.

Committees
In committees, it's a busy day. The Sub-committee on Mental Health is looking at access to in-patient mental health care.

The Committee on Agriculture and the Marine is looking at how Brexit will impact on the fishing industry.

The Education Committee is examining the issues affecting marginalised students and early school leavers.