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Miriam Lord: Supersub Anne appointed minister for everything as Cabinet takes cover

Dáil Sketch: With Ministers off jet-setting and TikTok-ing and what have you, it’s up to junior ministers to answer Opposition questions

Ministers are busy people. Some of them possess several departmental hats which they co-ordinate with different portfolios and wave at high-level meetings.

Sometimes they must attend to important business overseas on behalf of the nation, when they wear the green jersey along with a departmental hat. Sometimes they have to deal with important matters of State such as the turning of the sod and the doing of the TikTok.

Sometimes, there simply isn’t enough time in the day to accomplish all the stuff they need to.

But, above all else, they know they must be available to account for themselves and their department in the national parliament when their presence is required. This includes ministerial questions, topical issues and Dáil debates relating to their portfolios. Ministers take this requirement very seriously, which is why they created ministers of State.

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On a sitting day, TDs can raise matters for discussion on issues of local and national importance to which the relevant minister should respond. In the Dáil, these are called topical issues. There was a time when cabinet members turned up regularly for “Tropicals”. Not so much any more. Honest to God, do ordinary TDs not know who they are dealing with?

Instead, they dispatch the junior minister to speak on their behalf. In some cases, this is a good thing because the covetous underling often knows far more about the subject than their boss, who is far more concerned with the broader picture, like bagging a photograph with a minor celebrity or some such.

Increasingly though, even the minister of State isn’t available to outline the department’s position to TDs urgently seeking information on what is often a matter of great local concern in their constituency. Tropicals are important to the deputies who ask them, but also important members of the public who are hoping to get some positive information from a government minister who has the actual power to solve their particular problem.

For TDs, even getting to ask a question is the equivalent of winning a lucky dip. Many are keen but only four questions are selected per session.

Take the wilderness that was the Dáil first thing on Wednesday, when around 45 minutes were set aside for answering Tropicals before a two-hour debate on a motion from the Independent group on the provision of free and accessible public transport.

The four issues up for consideration concerned a new community nursing unit in Clifden, Co Galway (Éamon Ó Cuív, FF; Mairéad Farrell, SF; Catherine Connolly, Ind); the discharge of raw sewage at a bathing beauty spot in West Cork (Christopher O’Sullivan, FF); the treatment of volunteer workers by the Citizen Information Services (Paul Donnelly, SF) and the deterioration of the 184 and 44A bus services in Wicklow (Jennifer Whitmore, Soc Dems). Replies required input from the departments of health, environment, social protection and transport.

And once again, supersub Anne Rabbitte was sprung from the junior ministerial bench to reply to all. The Fianna Fáil TD for Galway East has responsibility for children and disability.

But no bother to Anne, who, along with her FF colleague Mary Butler (mental health and older people), regularly togs out for the non-glamour Tropical ties when other senior and junior ministers more suited to the subject have more important things to do. Mary would have taken the question on the unit in Clifden, but she was indisposed on Wednesday. Anne did the needful.

She heard the sorry tale of what has happened to the Warren Beach in Rosscarbery. “It is paradise, with golden sands, and you can look out at Galley Head and the stag rocks off Toe Head. There is nowhere like it. It is very peaceful, and anyone who has discovered this gem of a beach will know how nice it is,” said a proud Christopher O’Sullivan.

Unfortunately, the beach had to be closed at one point in August because raw sewage was seen drifting towards the shore. Since then, locals have been unable to get a conclusive answer from Irish Water about the cause of the spillage.

Rabbitte read out a very comprehensive statement “on behalf of the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage” about the wastewater infrastructure in Owenahincha.

“That’s a good answer,” she remarked to herself when she finished, speaking as a veteran of reading out absentee ministers’ scripts.

She then moved on to Jennifer Whitmore’s complaints about problems with bus services in Wicklow, particularly routes serving Newtownmountkennedy, Enniskerry and Bray.

“Actually, would you believe it’s my second time to take a topical in relation to transport?” announced Anne. John Lahart (FF) had asked her recently about route 174. “Yours are 184 and 44A and it’s the same operator [Go-Ahead Ireland], sadly to say.” She then returned to the script, explaining she was delivering this one on behalf of Eamon Ryan, the Minister for Transport.

Finally, in answer to a question about the downgrading of the work of volunteers in Citizens Information services, the Minister of State read out a very lengthy response from Minister for Social Protection Heather Humphreys, along with an equally detailed follow-up.

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Supersub Anne was mightily impressed, given the amount of empty bureaucratic waffle she is frequently required to reheat in the chamber.

She begged the Chair’s indulgence to depart from her supplied script.

“I come in here a lot of time and I read a lot of topical answers. To be very fair to Minister Humphreys and the department, that is one of the most comprehensive answers I have ever had to give to a deputy across the House. There’s action within it and there’s action from within the department, there’s a plan and it addresses every one of the issues that you and the people who have come to you highlighted,” she said.

“I can see a pathway towards all of this being resolved.”

And on so to the Independent group’s motion on free and accessible public transport. It’s an important issue, so there were many excellent and helpful contributions from TDs on all sides of the Dáil — both rural and urban. Donegal’s Thomas Pringle moved the motion, with particular emphasis on the inadequate transport services in his own county.

Two junior Ministers, neither of them from transport, replied on behalf of the Government. Pringle was not impressed. Perhaps he had noticed the dearth of senior Ministers for the day’s Tropical issues too.

Closing the debate, he began: “I suppose I could be forgiven for thinking a reshuffle took place that we didn’t know anything about” and that maybe junior Ministers Ossian Smyth or Niall Collins had been promoted,” because nobody from transport seems to have bothered to turn up to this debate today, which I think is telling in itself.”

Deputy Pringle said Ministers usually let you know beforehand if there is a genuine reason why they can’t reply in person.

“But that hasn’t happened, so it just seems that the relevant Ministers just didn’t bother their arses turning up.”

In his opinion, maybe that shows what the Government really thinks about the transport situation around the country, what it thinks about the Opposition and what it thinks about Independent TDs.

“It’s disappointing,” he sighed. “I know we had a missive read out there from the Minister for Transport, but it would have been nice if he had actually bothered his arse to turn up.”

Perhaps Niall Collins, the Minister for State at the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, who was on stand-in duty, “could print off a transcript of the debate and send it to the Minister for Transport”.

Or saving that, just make Anne Rabbitte and Mary Butler ministers for everything.