Miriam Lord: Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin play the regeneration game in worst ever episode of Doctor Who

Fianna Fáil leader airs his greatest hits while Mary Lou McDonald points to his hall of Shame

It's a case of the Cary On Coalition. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/PA

The Great Retainment is complete.

Not achieved by a reshuffle or even a wee-shuffle but by a soft-shoe shuffle where nobody got the order of the boot.

The Ceann Comhairle tried to invest a sense of drama into the occasion. “So, deputies, we have history to make today at this truly amazing sitting.”

Sean Ó Fearghaíl, who spoke in Irish, was half right: history would be made in the Dáil. A sitting government was going to collapse itself on purpose in the morning and have the next one with a new Taoiseach elected and in place by teatime.


But the occasion was more odd than truly amazing.

It was historic when Micheál rotated out of the Taoiseach’s job and Tánaiste Varadkar rolled into it, yet no one was rushing to dust down the word “seismic”, as would normally be the case.

Opposition TDs and a decent proportion of Government backbenchers were not happy about being dragged back to Leinster House for a full sitting on the Saturday before Christmas to rubber stamp a done-deal.

But if the Taoiseach and Tánaiste were to swap places as agreed, the usual palaver around dissolving and forming a new government needed to be telescoped into a one-day sequence of resignation, nomination and election speeches, standing ovations, job speculations and dashes to the Aras.

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Sounds exciting, but it wasn’t.

It was like the worst ever episode of Doctor Who, where the Coalition can only survive by regenerating itself and it ends with Micheál Martin fading out of the picture and Leo Varadkar’s familiar face coming back into focus for an unprecedented second run.

Not Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin doing their soft-shoe shuffle. Photograph: Andrew Milligan/PA

The lack of action began off-campus when Taoiseach Martin visited President Higgins in the Phoenix Park to half-tender his nearly-resignation. He returned to Leinster House to give a valedictory speech and greatest hits recital, watched by his wife Mary and son Micheál Aodh in the Distinguished Visitors’ Gallery.

It was a dignified mini-departure from Micheál, the great survivor, and he received a sustained standing ovation from all sides after it. He seemed touched by the response, but many speakers would later say that while they had their political differences, he was always decent, courteous and helpful to them.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, who clashed with him every week during Leaders’ Questions, stood quickly to applaud, her party colleagues rising with varying degrees of enthusiasm once they saw her move.

They were like people who haven’t attended Mass in years, looking slightly uncomfortable and watching the worshippers around them to know when to kneel, when to sit and when to stand.

The members of People Before Profit remained consistent and remained in their seats.

Then it was Leo Varadkar’s turn. He was nominated by Fine Gael chairman Richard Bruton, who celebrated 40 years in the Dáil earlier this year, and seconded by the party’s youngest deputy, Emer Higgins, who gave a speech containing more saccharine than all the Christmas pudding in the Dáil canteen.

There was the cheesy World Cup line about the real winning team being the current Government and the other one comparing Leo Varadkar to Santa Claus, because he delivers too. But she produced a cracker when referring to the Minister for Justice, Helen McEntee, who is out on maternity leave.

“Her second son, less than one week old, will shortly have lived through his second Taoiseach,” declared Emer.

Then the speeches started in earnest. The former Taoiseach spoke in favour of the former Tánaiste’s nomination for Taoiseach. Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, in contemplative mood, delivered a lovely speech, rambling on like a very proud father of the bride.

Then along came Mary Lou with kind words for Micheál and a succession of scuds for his Government. If the opening speakers concentrated on his greatest hits, she followed on with his Hall of Shame.

May Lou McDonald was not impressed with Micheál Martin's greatest hits recital. Photograph: damien Storan/PA

Government backbenchers had little to do on the day save fill the benches and vote when required. A stroppy knot of Fianna Fáilers near the back of the chamber amused themselves by heckling the Sinn Féin leader. Barry Cowen and Cathal Crowe sat in middle of them like Statler and Waldorf, scowling and muttering one liners.

As Mary Lou gave chapter and verse on the housing crisis, Crowe interjected with cries of “Who paid for your house?” “The house in Cabra!”

She needled Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil deputies who began shooting barbs about the former Sinn Féin councillor, Jonathan Dowdall, currently appearing as a state witness in the murder trial of Gerard Hutch.

When she said change is on the way and “the touchpaper has been lit”, FG’s Michael Creed loudly quipped “Hutch paper?”, sending Government TDs into paroxysms and ruining Mary Lou’s big finish.

The speeches rolled on. The heat was blasting. It was tough going.

Taoiseach-in-waiting Varadkar checked his watch. His family, including partner Matt, father Ashok and mother Miriam, were also in the Distinguished Visitors Gallery.

Panto-goers recognised one of Leo’s friends in the chamber.

“Sammy Sausages is in the public gallery” is not something we expect to be told during the election of a new Taoiseach.

The talking continued. “I don’t wish to be ungracious, but ...” began Richard Boyd Barrett. Bríd Smith quoted Jon Bon Jovi before rolling out Tweedledee and Tweedledum, who get more mentions in Dáil Éireann than most of the TDs.

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Former Fine Gael minister and disgraced Moriarty tribunal alumnus Michael Lowry held his nose and said he would support the Coalition. “It is not spectacular but is modestly effective,” he condescended.

Mattie McGrath, the other independent TD for Tipperary, delivered a baffling tour-de-force about “the great reset”, which he said was nothing to do with a conspiracy theory. To the bemusement of deputies, he reached into a rabbit hole and pulled out a printed speech that he stutteringly read to widespread incomprehension before declaring “I rest my case” and sitting down.

Mattie McGrath, who held forth in the Dáil to widespread incomprehension. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times

After a vote, Leo set off for the Phoenix Park to the traditional chorus of cheers in the Leinster House courtyard and was waved on his way. Among the crowd was the soon to be Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and National Development Plan Delivery (DNPD).

Or is that the Dublin Northside Police Department? Anyway, Paschal Donohoe, DNPD, had his arms in the air, clapping like a man possessed.

There was a break for lunch before the two leaders went through the charade of not reshuffling their cabinets and giving everyone their old jobs back. The only one in minor doubt was Stephen Donnelly’s position in Health. When a close associate was seen in the corridor checking her phone before letting out a roar of delight, it was clear he was still in the fold.

As part of the rotation, the job of Government Chief Whip was to revert to Fine Gael. There had been doubts about Hildegarde Naughton getting the nod as cabinet enforcer, but she nailed it. Unusually, she was seen in the Dáil bar on Wednesday night, standing up and holding court in the middle of a group of FG backbenchers, drinking a bottle of Corona by the neck.

She’s hard, is that Hildegarde.

Leo and Micheál swapped seats before the final stretch. They all made speeches. The new old members of the reconstituted cabinet, back from their trip to the Aras, were named to nobody’s surprise.

Róisín Shortall of the Soc Dems called it “The Night of the Blunt Knives”. To noises off from Mattie McGrath, Eamon Ryan made another lovely speech, thanking all his troops and saying how wonderful they are.

“Yah can’t cut a bush!” hollered Mattie. “What about the thistles? What about the Sewers? It’s Socialist discrimination.”

So it’s a case of the Carry On Coalition as Leo’s new SO-SO (same old, same old) government marches on.

That’s stability for you, which isn’t a bad thing.