Subscriber OnlyOireachtas

Miriam Lord: Orwellian references fly as Taoiseach’s concrete levy goes down like a lead balloon

Dáil Sketch: Micheál quotes from 1984, accusing Sinn Féin of ‘doublethink’, but Mary Lou is more of an Animal Farm girl herself

The Keynote Kids were back on home turf on Tuesday, ready to get stuck in again after their ego-boosting conference outings at the weekend.

Micheál Martin seemed mildly invigorated following his first (and only) leading role as Taoiseach in a Fianna Fáil ardfheis, while Mary Lou McDonald appeared similarly chipper.

Her speech was rapturously received by an arena stuffed with Sinn Féin supporters at the non-partisan Ireland’s Future event.

Leaders’ Questions began with Mary Lou telling the Taoiseach to stick his concrete blocks where the sun don’t shine. Or words to that effect.


And Micheál accused her party of going around the crumbling houses with those same blocks, picking them up here and dropping them there depending on the prevailing public mood.

It was the usual knockabout between them.

And yet when it comes to the national scandal of homes disintegrating because defective materials were used to build them, the two leaders want the same thing: redress for the affected homeowners and a way to extract payment from the culprits to cover some the billions it is going to cost the exchequer to clean up their mess.

But naturally, the Taoiseach and Sinn Féin leader don’t agree on how that money should be collected.

The Government announced a levy on concrete blocks in last week’s budget. And at the time, Micheál reminded Mary Lou, her finance spokesman Pearse Doherty stood in the chamber and welcomed it. The Taoiseach even dug out the quote — “I welcome the defective concrete products levy” — for the delectation of the Sinn Féin benches.

So he was very surprised when the first words out of Mary Lou’s mouth in the opening session of this Dáil week were: “Taoiseach, I want you to scrap your concrete block levy!”

Surprised enough to have a quote from George Orwell lined up and ready to go in the event of the Sinn Féin leader teeing it up for him with an outright rejection of the proposed levy. Which of course she did, because the wind began changing after last Tuesday’s budget statement and Doherty’s initial response, and it was well beneath Mary Lou wings seven days later.

Opposition TDs (and a more than a few Government backbenchers) say the 10 per cent levy on concrete building products will have very little impact on the industry it is meant to target. The increase will simply be passed on to people who are already struggling to come up with the money to buy a house.

The proposal could add as much as “an eye-watering” €4,000 to the basic cost of a home”, said a mind-boggled Mary Lou, coming up with a snappy new demographic cohort in an effort to persuade Micheál to ditch the levy in favour of a different form of penalty.

“Taoiseach, imagine if you were a member of Generation Locked Out of Home Ownership,” she said. “Imagine that. Imagine you’re a first-time buyer” discovering that your house is going to go up another few thousand because of this levy.

“I’m asking you to do the right thing,” she quivered.

But here’s the thing: for Mary Lou, the right thing will always be the wrong thing so long as the Government is doing it. Micheál Martin knows this from bitter experience of dealing with Sinn Féin in the Dáil, which explains why he is increasingly sour in his assessment of the party’s approach to parliamentary politics. Others might just see it as an Opposition without responsibility militantly opposing, no nuance required for their soundscape of snappy slogans.

The Taoiseach never tires of pointing out the emptiness of such a relentlessly negative game plan and is always on the lookout for new ways to explain it. This time, he broke out the literature. And this time, it was serious, because he opened a book in the Dáil and nary a hint of Heaney came out of it.

He couldn’t wait to reply to Mary Lou’s latest dismissal of this latest Government move which, not so long ago, her own colleagues seemed to think a good proposition. He thanked her for her contribution, took a breath and launched into his showstopper.

“When George Orwell wrote his great novel, 1984, he talked about the party’s emphasis on doublethink. Describing it, he explains that party members have ‘to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them’,” he intoned, adding that most people who read 1984 see it as a warning but Sinn Féin seem to view it “as some sort of instruction manual”.

And if that didn’t cut Mary Lou to the quick (it didn’t), maybe this would: “Deputy, you are the party of doublethink and the three-card trick.”

If the Sinn Féin leader felt a little winded by that charge (highly unlikely), she didn’t have time to dwell on it because the Taoiseach, clearly on a roll, decided to end the argument by aiming a knockout punchline across the floor.

“God help us if you ever get near the national finances,” he thundered, sending the massed ranks of Shinners — along with the rest of the Opposition — into paroxysms of laughter.

It may be more than a decade since Fianna Fáil left the country in financial flitters and government in disgrace, but that didn’t matter. The only thing to make them laugh any louder would have been Micheál ripping off his shirt to reveal a vest underneath emblazoned with ‘Been There, Done That, Brought the Troika’.

The Sinn Féin leader, who was brought up on Orwell Road, was quick with her response. “Well, Taoiseach, you’d be more Animal Farm, really, than 1984 — some being more equal than others.”

Labour leader Ivana Bacik also felt that the concrete block levy was a flawed idea, suggesting that a windfall tax on the construction sector would be a better idea as it would be a levy on profit and not product. The Taoiseach didn’t agree, insisting that there isn’t any difference between a levy on blocks and a tax on company profits.

“It’s the industry or the taxpayer, make up your mind.”

It seems the House always wins, unless it’s a home. Which is utterly depressing.

However, this may not be the end of the matter. The Taoiseach indicated that the Department of Finance is still working on a budget snag list and the measure (and its cost to consumers) may yet be tweaked before the Finance Bill comes before the Dáil when it works out “the detailed design of the levy itself”.

Meanwhile, Paul Murphy enjoyed some fun at the expense of the new UK prime minister Liz Truss as the Taoiseach studiously ignored the spectacular shambles of her accession to Number 10 during questions about his recent meetings with her.

He noted that while she was forced into a “humiliating U-turn” over a plan to slash the top rate of tax for high earners in Britain from 45 to 40 per cent, the top rate for high earners in Ireland already stands at 40 per cent.

“What do you think about your policies being to the right of the Tories?” he asked.

Micheál didn’t give an answer, saying he would not be discussing the “domestic economic policies” of another country.