Subscriber OnlyOireachtas

Miriam Lord’s week: ‘Jesus Christ, I don’t know where all the billions are going to come from’

Major ball hopping from Aontú's Peadar Toibin who managed to get Simon Covenvey’s hackles up

Photograph: Alan Betson, Irish Times Staff Photographer.

 Leinster House
Photo taken on 28/3/07

The Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael parliamentary parties are holding their budgetary policy meetings next week ahead of the government’s Summer Economic Statement which sets out the lie of the fiscal land ahead of October’s budget.

The meetings will be lively and lengthy as TDs and senators get a chance to lobby the leadership on local issues, national policy and all manner of pet projects in need of the few bob. “It’ll go on for hours” sighed one Fine Gael politician, looking ahead to their budget discussions on Tuesday night. “They’ll be in there looking for money with lists as long as your arm.”

Fianna Fáil meet on Friday. Willie O’Dea says he will be calling for interim supports for people already in dire straits due to the cost of living crisis. Rather than holding out until October, which is the Government’s preferred course of action, the veteran Limerick TD and former minister told RTE’s Claire Byrne: “I must say my own instinct would be to take some alleviating measures now.”

He will have plenty of support among his colleagues who want to see Paschal Donohoe loosening the purse strings to soften the sting of rising prices and static salaries for hard pressed constituents.

“We’ll be as good as Sinn Féin in what we’re going to be looking for” said a Fianna Fáiler. “Jesus Christ, I don’t know where all the billions are going to come from.”

But while the meetings are supposed to be about budget matters, there is one topic which all TDs and Senators will want to talk about first — the new census figures and what they might mean for the safety of their seats.

The preliminary results were released on Thursday, giving rise to feverish speculation over who might gain and who might lose out when the final figures are parsed and analysed by the Electoral Commission next year. It is expected that well over a dozen new Dáil seats will be created to take the rise in population into account.

The fact that so many constituencies have exceeded the prescribed upper limit of 30,000 people per TD will mean extra seats for Dublin and Cork with Donegal, Wexford, Tipperary, Kildare, Meath and Carlow-Kilkenny also expected to benefit. Some boundaries will have to be redrawn to make sure the numbers add up.

A year of fretting lies ahead until the new map is unveiled in July of next year. Losing a chunk of their support base in a redraw could mean curtains for a sitting TD.

In the Seanad on Tuesday, former Fianna Fáil TD for Wexford Malcolm Byrne pointed out we used to have six and seven seat constituencies. “And the obsession with county boundaries, which is driven by the GAA, is somewhat bizarre. County boundaries are not natural designs in Irish history. They started with King John who doesn’t have the best reputation in this country. He drew the county boundaries in Dublin.”

It’s not that politicians are obsessed by the work of the Electoral Commission, but Sen Byrne went back to the 17th century to bolster his argument. “The last county to become a county in Ireland was Wicklow in 1606. The British were trying to design it as a shire but three families, the O’Tooles, the O’Kavanaghs and the O’Byrnes all rebelled to delay the process.” He said if we are going by original boundaries then maybe Wicklow should take in Wexford and part of Carlow.

Anyway, the smart money is on Wexford being split into two 3 seaters, which should make Malcolm happy as he plots his comeback.

Poring over maps, checking the figures and working on their permutations, the political anoraks threw up a number of intriguing scenarios. One involves former TD for Meath East Senator Regina Doherty, who moved to the adjacent Fingal constituency having lost out in the last general election to colleague Helen McEntee.

However, with the population in Meath East now up by almost 11,500 and Dublin Fingal up by over 18,600 it wouldn’t take much — maybe just the annexation a bit of Fingal — to make Meath East a 4-seater and, perhaps, even tempt Regina back across the border for a rematch with Helen.

The prospect of an extra seat for Carlow-Kilkenny will be welcomed by the McGuinness family. We see KCLR radio station ran a short piece last week about Kilkenny’s outgoing Lord Mayor, Andrew McGuinness, who tells reporter Domhnall Doyle that he ‘would love to’ run for the Dáil as soon as the opportunity arises. Andrew is the son of veteran Fianna Fáil TD and former Chair of the PAC, John McGuinness, who has represented the constituency for 25 years.

Is Andrew’s opportunity about to arise?

There are strong rumours in Leinster House that his dad is planning a tilt at a seat in the European Parliament, thus leaving the way clear for young councillor McGuinness in the newly beefed up constituency.

Equali-TEA and Cake Coffee Morning

The Ceann Comhairle hosted a farewell dinner in the Dail this week for Papal Nuncio Archbishop Jude Thaddeus Okolo Martin, who finishes his six-year mission to Ireland next month to take up the role in Czechia, formerly the Czech Republic.

Sean Ó'Fearghail was joined by a cross-party group of TDs and senators for the Wednesday night dinner in his private dining room, which adjoins the Members’ Restaurant. Among the attendance were Senator Ronán Mullen, Mattie McGrath, Carol Nolan, Thomas Gould of Sinn Féin, Fine Gael’s Paul Kehoe and Charlie Flanagan, Independent TD Marian Harkin and Independent senators Sharon Keogan and Eileen Flynn.

The dinner was delayed because the TDs had to go to a vote. Afterwards, some of the guests were puzzled by the absence of Fianna Fáil politicians at the shindig. “The nearest the Nuncio got to meeting someone from Fianna Fáil was Mattie McGrath and he left the party years ago” said one attendee.

It was a busy day on the catering front with an “Equali-TEA and Cake Coffee Morning” in the restaurant and a bake-off competition to mark Pride month in the Oireachtas.

The Rainbow flag is being projected onto the Kildare Street facade of Leinster House this weekend.

The Oireachtas LGBT+ group organised the event and all the cakes and pastries, including the winning entries baked by staffers Ellen Casey, Diane McSweeney and Michele Conville were auctioned off by the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad, Mark Daly. Manager Julie Lyons co-ordinated the event, which raised €1,020 for the LGBT Coalition “Trans Equality Together”.

The winning cake was called “Bród” which is the Irish for pride and not to be confused with President Michael D Higgins’ dog of the same name.

There was an “Irish Pride bread butter pudding” on Wednesday’s menu while the Pride Burrito (pink wrap with chicken and colourful salad veggies) sold out at lunchtime. Apparently it’s a canteen staple during Pride week. It used to be called the Gay Burrito but the name was changed this year in case it might cause offence.

Neither puddin’ nor burrito made it onto the menu for the Papal Nuncio’s dinner.

The social highlight of the week was held in the Visitors’ bar on Thursday evening after the Dail and Seanad finished up.

There was a wedding party for canteen stalwart Natalie Timmons — “Ah, there y’are, Toaiseach! What can I do you for?” — who greets everyone with equal regard and infectious good humour despite the early starts and late night finishes.

She has been cheering up and minding the denizens of Leinster House for 19 years.

Ministerial bouquets (of the fresh floral variety) were flying into the canteen all day and the Ceann Comhairle sent his official best wishes.

A steady stream of politicians from across the spectrum dropped in to wish the bride all the best in her forthcoming marriage to Dave Connolly. The wedding will be in Castleknock. And this time it will be Natalie’s turn to get the star treatment.

Shameless whataboutery

Some major ball hopping this week from Aontú's Peadar Toibin who managed to get Simon Coveney’s hackles up after he questioned how top civil servant Martin Fraser was appointed to the position of Irish ambassador to Britain.

“This appointment has echoes similar to the Katherine Zappone affair” declared the Meath West TD, who understands the Cabinet “was not fully aware” of Fraser’s appointment in the same way as it was not initially aware of the proposal to appoint Katherine Zappone to a UN position.

Peader was “surprised” to hear about the secretary general of the Department of the Taoiseach’s appointment to the Court of St James “especially at this time of crisis in our relationship with Britain”.

Conveniently stepping into the realm of deep speculation, he wondered what might happen if Tánaiste Leo Varadkar was prosecuted for leaking a confidential document and Martin Fraser was called to give evidence.

“He could not be subpoenaed or give evidence in a court case because he would be outside the jurisdiction. It would also be a significant scandal to the country if a sitting ambassador is giving evidence to a criminal court case in relation to a former Taoiseach” said Peadar.

“Sure there is no criminal case, so I don’t know what you’re talking about” snapped the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

“There’s a case before the DPP,” shot back Peadar, milking his moment of shameless whataboutery.

“There is no criminal court case” repeated Simon.

“I used the word ‘if’.”

“This line of questioning is not only inappropriate, it is also in bad taste” glowered the Minister, before thanking outgoing ambassador, Adrian O’Neill, for doing “an extraordinary job through a very turbulent and difficult period in terms of British-Irish relations as opposed to using it, as the Deputy has tried to do at the start of his contribution, to cast aspersions”.

Mattie McGrath, who was in the Chair for this icy exchange on potential court cases and ambassadorial appointments, urged deputy Toibin to be careful with his words. “Just be cúramach” counselled Mattie, dispensing advice he rarely observes himself.

Peadar had a long list of questions: “Was the post advertised … Were other people interviewed … Did Martin Fraser submit a CV … What is his diplomatic background … Did he sit diplomatic examinations … Does he have another European language other than Irish or English, as is usually the case for the diplomatic corps?”

“I would expect an opposition deputy of your experience to actually take some time to find out how ambassadors are appointed” Simon told the Aontú leader. He accused him of “trying to use this floor to damage people’s reputations”, a charge which was vehemently rejected.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs is well pleased with his new appointment.

“We are now appointing perhaps the most experienced civil servant in Ireland in recent years to perhaps the most important position in terms of international relations and diplomacy. He is more than qualified for that job.”