Shrinking Reilly Blooms among Fine Gael Plants
Sturdy Coveney takes root
Minister for Health Dr James Reilly
A hairy man materialised in the middle of a sea of plants yesterday afternoon, happy in his plumpness and smiling opinion of himself.
A peevish Opposition peered through the proliferating undergrowth.
It was hard to tell.
Fianna Fáil ’s Billy Kelleher and Sinn Féin’s Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin tried in vain to hack their way through the dense foliage (it was early spring outside Leinster House, but in the Dáil chamber the Government’s backbench border was in full leaf and displaying a glorious shade of Fine Gael blue).
This would not do. Kelleher and Ó Caoláin – health spokesmen both – did not like what they were seeing. It’s against the law of political nature, they charged, growing more annoyed by the minute.
Eventually, as those vigorous blue shoots scrambled over the procedural allotment known as Ministers’ Questions, Billy and Caoimhghín lost the plot.
The reason for their anger was simple: they believed Fine Gael had politically modified the session in order to make their Minister for Health look good for the duration of his question time, so he might emerge from it with a readied up best-in-show rosette.
Clearly they felt he wasn’t good enough to win one on his own.
So what they did – according to the two lads – was plant row upon row of FG questions on the list, thereby severely limiting the Opposition’s chances of sneaking in a question which might cause him problems.
You see, Calamity James had some good news to impart on the subject of waiting lists and the incidence of MRSA infections in hospitals around the country. So his colleagues shot up around him with a protective curtain of sympathetic questions, allowing their man to blossom forth with easy replies while the Opposition couldn’t get at him with a dose of reality
Government backbenchers tabled 25 questions on the MRSA bug – levels are at their lowest in six years, apparently.
Nearly all of them were the same: to ask “the Minister for Health the measures that have been taken to tackle MRSA” in a named hospital and to outline “the impact of these measures and if he will make a statement on the matter”.
All the questions were taken together in one huge bouquet and Calamity James, their aul flower, was more than delighted to answer them all at some length. And the questioners wanted to get their spake in too.
Time, like the seasons, marched on.
Billy protested. How could he do his job as an Opposition spokesman? With 25 questions in from the backbenchers, he would not get a word in edgeways.
They were being left in the shade so that Minister Reilly could bloom.
It was a dreadful precedent to set and against all the rules of parliamentary engagement. Totally cynical, complained Kelleher. But the Reilly’s backbench wallflowers thought it hilarious.
It’s because they can’t stand to hear good news, goaded Derek Keating.
“I will not have a single opportunity to hold the Minister to account in the only chance I have,” wailed Ó Caoláin.
Whereupon Calamity’s “plants” all began to howl that they were entitled to ask questions. The Leas Cheann Comhairle agreed. What he didn’t say was that the Government was playing fast and loose with parliamentary etiquette.
Billy’s protests that the questions were all the same got him nowhere. “Well, there must be telepathy between the Fine Gael offices in this parliament because they all wrote the same question.”
Reilly turned his face to the sun and smiled.
Meanwhile, former Labour health minister Róisín Shortall (now transplanted to Labour’s dissident weed bed) rolled her eyes. “It was done to avoid accountability,” she sighed, shooting a withering glance towards her former boss. “He’s up to his usual tricks.”
“Disgrace,” shouted Billy, before the Leas Cheann Comhairle suspended the House.
“Accountability my eye!” huffed Róisín.
It was a relief to get to the cool meadow of Leaders’ Questions.
No Taoiseach, no Tánaiste, no Michael Noonan nor Ruairí Quinn to do a stately oak routine and look down on the Opposition.
It was sapling Simon in charge. All on his own for most of the time, with just one Minister of State, Ciarán Cannon, sitting behind him and four backbenchers trying out the seats beside him.
As it turned out, Simon Coveney easily took root and controlled matters with a calm and steady confidence. Fresh from marathon talks on the Common Agricultural Policy in Brussels where he concluded a deal at midnight on Tuesday, he could have been forgiven for not being up to speed. But he made an impressive debut, filling in for Enda.
He didn’t waffle, was a model of clarity and when he didn’t answer the first of his questions with sufficient information for Fianna Fáil’s Michael McGrath, he came back and apologised. “I should have dealt with it first time around,” he said, making himself “crystal clear” on the Government’s stance on the security of Irish bank deposits.
And, unlike Calamity James, he didn’t need a backbench support structure to blossom.
A specimen plant worth watching for future growth prospects.