Speaking of creches, Leo was back in the chamber for Leaders’ Questions this week.
After a long summer, Micheál will have heaved a sigh of relief.
It can be so difficult keeping the youngsters occupied when politicare providers shut up shop until the autumn.
They get bored and start poking their noses into the business of other Coalition leaders, annoying Ministers from different parties and making unhelpful statements at inopportune moments about stuff like nitrate directives and Northern Ireland.
They also hate being left on their own.
Still, at least Micheál Martin, the Minister for Foreign Affairs as well as Tánaiste, could look forward to a nice little spin on the world stage at a United Nations summit in New York last week. His summer highlight.
And it would be a nice little break from Leo Varadkar.
Or would it?
“Tánaiste Micheál! Tánaiste Micheál! I want to go too. Can I? Can I?”
“Now young Leo, in terms of actionable outcomes regarding the overall travel framework in the context of plenaries and bi-laterals and ratio management vis-a-vis podiums, that would not be advantageous. Notwithstanding that, I already have my hands full minding Eamon Ryan and Stephen Donnelly. The Yanks won’t know what hit them.”
(Funnily enough, the summit is well over and they still don’t know.)
But Leo was insistent.
“I am going and I will be making a speech because I am the Taoiseach and you are not.”
So off they all went.
This meant they missed the first sittings of the new Dáil term but, given the sinister and chaotic events outside Leinster House on the opening day, nobody would have remembered what they said inside anyway.
A week on, it must be such a weight off Micheál’s shoulders to know that he can wave his Fine Gael counterpart off to the Dáil again on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons, where almost fully-trained Opposition TDs are on hand to keep him occupied for at least a couple of hours.
Happy days for him with the Taoiseach back into his familiar chamber routine, but he wasn’t the only politician taking a benign view of the events on Tuesday.
TDs and Senators were delighted to welcome the return of the ODPs (Ordinary Decent Protesters) to Kildare Street.
Normal service resumed with a noisy demonstration by hundreds of childcare providers, supportive parents and burbling infants. It was greeted with approval from all sides of the Oireachtas after the disgraceful scenes involving far-right disrupters.
Nobody afraid to leave Leinster House this time.
Peadar Tóibín of Aontú accused Roderic O’Gorman of ‘literally destroying’ the childcare sector and also called for his resignation
No self-appointed goons getting away with policing who could and could not pass through a Garda cordon leading to the national parliament.
No threats or intimidation or cameras shoved into faces or foul-mouthed tirades or offensive imagery.
“Lovely peaceful protest,” cooed Mattie McGrath (who hasn’t mentioned the Covid “scamdemic” in the chamber for a long time) during the Order of Business. He spoke up for creche owners around the country who say they may have to close due to lack of Government funding, excessive regulation and heavy-handed bureaucracy.
So too did his Rural Independent colleague Michael Collins, appreciating their “decent, peaceful protest”. These childcare providers are forced to withdraw their services for three days “in a desperate effort to wake a sleeping minister and a very much sound asleep government on this issue”.
He called on the Minister, Roderic O’Gorman, to resign.
“Is it not a bit rich for a minister who is on a salary of €183,000 a year to tell providers and staff, many of whom are on salaries that are less that the minimum wage, that a strike is not necessary?”
The Taoiseach robustly defended his Minister for Children in the face of strong criticism led off during Leaders’ Questions by Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, who called for greater public investment in childcare services and fair pay for the professionals – mostly women – working in the area.
“It’s time for the Government to stop tinkering around the edges of this crisis.”
Leo Varadkar didn’t see investing more than €1bn as tinkering. He stressed that the Government “has prioritised spending on childcare like no other” and hinted that more relief would be forthcoming the next month’s budget.
Unlike their Opposition champions, the Taoiseach hadn’t much time for the protesters, well-behaved or otherwise. He deemed their action “unwarranted” and rather dismissively declared that they represented “probably less than 5 per cent” of the childcare sector.
Owners of small creches who didn’t attend the demo and parents struggling to pay fees – “the equivalent of a second mortgage” as Mary Lou put it –,would not share his opinion.
Leo also had little comfort for the community and voluntary care workers who are threatening strike action next month if their pay is not brought up to par with colleagues in the public sector.
Labour leader Ivana Bacik raised another aspect of the “care crisis” in support of those workers who provide essential services on the State’s behalf by “providing a lifeline to Ireland’s most vulnerable communities”.
These are the people – again, predominantly women – who care for the homeless, provide disability services and look after older people and yet the Government “has washed its hand of responsibility for them”.
“We are not the employers,” argued the Taoiseach, who hopes the strike won’t happen. But he acknowledged that the State funds this vital work and so “has a role to play” in resolving the issue.
An increased pay offer is on the table.
“Derisory. It’s below the rate of inflation” countered Ivana.
Obviously, if the strike goes ahead Tusla and the HSE will have a contingency plan, said Leo.
“That has the sound of a let-them-eat-cake approach to a collapsing care system” she replied.
Catherine Murphy of the Social Democrats was in full agreement with the Labour leader.
If the strikes go ahead, many vital community services will collapse, she told the Taoiseach. And if these bodies didn’t exist the State would have to provide the care directly.
“We urgently need to have a discussion about this. The idea that Tusla and the HSE can somehow magic up a contingency is pie in the sky,” said Catherine, sounding genuinely worried.
If nothing happens in the next three weeks, absolutely vital services will be shut down.
But Leo believes a good pay offer is on the table.
“I’m sorry it wasn’t accepted.”
Suppose they’ll just have to go off and get better paid jobs elsewhere in the health service so.
As they are already doing.
Don’t blame him. What’s a caring government to do?