The Dáil served up a steaming vat of political cliche to mark the imminent arrival of its two-month-long summer break. It was tough going. TDs spent Tuesday gorging on a three-hour mash-up of old chestnuts in a rancid swill of hackneyed phrases.
Any idea of doing some proper work disappearing in the escalating soundbite war between the Government and its main opposition party, Sinn Féin.
Others partook of this ridiculous feast, but they were of little consequence as the two main players got stuck in. In this self-indulgent blowout, they only had eyes for each other. Sinn Féin started it by throwing a motion of no confidence in the Government on to the table.
The Coalition responded by tabling a motion of confidence in its own scrumptiousness.
Why have Sinn Féin take lumps out of them when they feel wonderful enough to eat themselves? As a result of some recent departures from the Government ranks, there were early fears that the Coalition might not be able to muster enough votes to win, precipitating a general election. This was never going to happen. But the advance hype for the confidence debate was stoked to such an extent it set the scene for a Dáil showdown which was never going to live up to its over-egged billing.
Just after seven o’clock in the evening, after the pointless hours of predictable allegation and counter-allegation, the Dáil voted. The Ceann Comhairle announced the result: the Coalition had prevailed by 85 to 66. A very comfortable win. Triumphant Government deputies clapped and thumped the woodwork, gleefully heckling the departing Sinn Féiners. They were enjoying this moment, almost too much.
Clearly, they felt they had turned the tables on their tormentors. Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said as much as he wound up the debate. “Sinn Féin have made a tactical error here” with their “deeply cynical and nakedly political” motion of no confidence, he said. Their move allowed the Government to demonstrate that it has a clear, working majority.
Three hours earlier, in his opening speech, Taoiseach Micheál Martin was delighted to have been given the opportunity to outline the progress his Government has made in the last two years under very difficult global circumstances. “This is a good time to take stock,” he smiled in his “I’m glad you asked me that” speech. He then launched straight into an attack on Sinn Féin, setting the bar for what was to come from his side of the House before grabbing the opportunity to deliver his end-of-term State of the Nation address.
Mary Lou McDonald responded with her standard Would You Look at the State of the Nation address. The Sinn Féin leader luxuriated in the political cliche porridge for 15 minutes as Ministers rolled their eyes and got distracted by their phones. “Change is needed now more than ever... out of touch, out of date, out of time... the writing is on the wall for you... failed Government should go now.. utter and abject failure... falling apart at the seams... no urgency, no vision...”
All the old favourites, she kept them coming, along with frequently mentioning “ordinary people”. Something must be done for them, “but your do-nothing Government sits on its hands and turns a blind eye”. Mary Lou McDonald and her party were shamelessly treated after the last general election when “you clubbed together to stop change”, she thundered at the Taoiseach, still nursing the Trumpian line that she was somehow done out of the top job by an electoral conspiracy masquerading as simple mathematics. “The very definition of cynical,” sniffed Mary Lou, with a straight face.
Taking a leaf from Sinn Féin’s Dáil performances, the Government responded by throwing all its main players on to the pitch to mount a blanket response to Mary Lou’s attack. Six speakers — all from the Fianna Fáil side — limbered up to fight back. Agriculture minister Charlie McConalogue led the charge of TDs, each with two-minute speaking slots. He took a swipe at the SF “Magic Money Tree”. Next up was Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien, who probably thought he had the line of the day with his jibe about Mary Lou’s arrogance going from stratospheric to intergalactic. “You’d need NASA’s Webb space telescope to be able to track it.” Perhaps Darragh was looking through the wrong end, having just rendered this astronomical arrogance invisible to the naked eye.
Next up was junior Minister Mary Butler, who was all fired up and talking a mile a minute. She handed the baton on to chief whip Jack Chambers, who set off like a hare before passing to Robert Troy who did a hand-over to Paul McAuliffe for the final leg. It was the strangest relay race ever.
Sinn Féin’s Eoin Ó Broin charged back with the housing crisis. Then Fine Gael sent out its relay team, led by Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe with Simon Harris, Hildegarde Naughton and Brendan Griffin waiting on their blocks to get their words in within the qualifying time.
It was exhausting. Sinn Féin are like the Muppets Statler and Waldorf, said Hildegarde. “Heckling from the balcony and offering no solutions.” Brendan Griffin bellowed: “The party of Gerry Adams will never defeat the party of Michael Collins.” Ah, here.
“We will end the two-tier health service and deliver universal healthcare as quickly as we can,” promised Sinn Féin’s David Cullinane, winning applause from his side.
After a quick interlude from Richard Boyd Barrett and Paul Murphy, Simon Coveney, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, led the next Government wave. “There may be a time when your populist disruption brings down this Government, but it won’t be today,” he told Mary Lou, who was busy scrolling on her phone. Helen McEntee was next with “charade of a motion” followed by Richard Bruton.
Next up for the other side was Pearse Doherty, who did a repeat Mary Lou performance with added mica.
Another interlude from some Independents and then the Green wave mobilised. Eamon Ryan first and then Catherine Martin and Roderic O’Gorman with Fianna Fáil Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly and backbencher Jennifer Murnane O’Connor thrown in to add ballast.
The Rural Independents rowed in behind the no confidence banner, citing a Government which is more interested in giving billions to them above in Dublin while ignoring the country people.
Mattie McGrath managed to find the last unthrown kitchen sink in Leinster House and lobbed it across the floor. “Fyne Gale and Fianna Fáil are responsible for a culture of insiders. Jobs for the boys, appointing record numbers of advisers, keeping global elites inside, strokes, cronyism, corruption, cute hoorism, brown envelopes, scratched backs, dig-outs and whatever you’re having yourself. I say Taoiseach Martin and Tánaiste, and the whole gang of ye: that’s what you’re at, you’re a disgrace.”
Time ticked by and not a cliche or hoary old chestnut remained unmolested in Kildare Street. “Now we’re moving to the independent Independents,” said the Ceann Comhairle, wearily. Thomas Pringle, in a very brief contribution, said it was a failed Government. He managed to say “failed” over 20 times, which was impressive. “I never had confidence in this Government from day one,” said Joan Collins.
And back to the Coalition benches for the final assault. Heather Humphries cut loose and got a round of applause for her attack on Sinn Féin’s motion, calling it “an absolute waste of time and pure nonsense... the greatest load of codology I’ve heard in a long time” and calling Sinn Féin the “flip-flop party”.
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar concluded with a full round-up of how the sky would fall in under a Sinn Féin government. And then the pumped-up Coalition waited for the vote. They got what they wanted — a thumping victory. Sinn Féin won’t be too upset. This was SF in HD (high dudgeon) mode. They made a splash before the holidays and it will sustain them through the summer.