Is Winston Churchtown spoiling for a bust-up with McDowell?

Miriam Lord on Shane Ross, strange alliances, and a lather of misplaced indignation

While Fine Gael is blue in the face trying to keep the Minister for Transport sweet, Winston Churchtown may yet be spoiling for another fight. The Independent Alliance's senior man at the Cabinet table seems to revel in the might of his coalition power and ministerial veto.

Churchtown, aka Shane Ross, has been testing the boundaries of his major Government partner's patience since he was swept, along with his wildest dreams, into high office. Now Ross, it has been heavily rumoured for some time, has decided to stick his nose into Seanad business. Word from Government Buildings is that, not content with solo runs outside his own department in areas such as judicial appointments, Winston wants a say in who is appointed to chair the Taoiseach's committee to oversee the implementation of the Manning report on Seanad reform. More to the point, he wants a say in who isn't appointed.

Where Ross is concerned it's a definite case of ABMD: Anybody But McDowell. Earlier this year Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil agreed to nominate Senator Michael McDowell, a former tánaiste, attorney general and minister for justice, to chair the committee. But Winston Churchtown doesn't want it to happen.

In February Sinn Féin's Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach in the Dáil if Ross was blocking the appointment. Leo Varadkar waffled, saying the matter was still under consideration and he wasn't even sure if it was his job to appoint a chair. At the same time, a Government source told The Irish Times, "There is an impasse. There is a bad blood between Shane and Michael, and Shane is digging his heels in.''


Media requests in recent weeks for the name of the chairperson – the committee will have 26 members drawn from the Oireachtas and outside experts – have yielded nothing. This is all the more intriguing as the committee is supposed to be up and running by next Wednesday, when the political parties appoint their representatives to it, although they haven’t got around to picking any yet. The inauguration is expected to be postponed for at least a couple of weeks.

Meanwhile, no word on a chair. Word has it that Winston Churchtown is still dead set against McDowell and might even be casting around privately for an alternative name. But neither Fine Gael nor Fianna Fáil has changed its preference. Will Winston insist on having his way? The standoff is being watched with interest in both Houses. Time is running out.

If Sinn Féin can do it once they can do it again

Because it concerns the upper house, people may have missed a significant moment in Irish political history on Friday. The once unthinkable became the politically acceptable. Two Fine Gael candidates cruised comfortably into Seanad seats – with critical byelection support from Sinn Féin. If they can do it once they can do it again. (Fianna Fáil will be singing that mantra as a general election nears.)

Some may say it's only the Seanad, which doesn't really count. Nevertheless, when the votes were counted Sinn Féin ballots helped Ian Marshall, the former president of the Ulster Farmers' Union, and Anthony Lawlor, the former Fine Gael TD for Kildare, over the line.

Marshall was asked to contest the byelection by Varadkar, while Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy proposed Lawlor, an ally from his five-a-side backbench group during the last government and a likely general-election candidate.

Marshall, a unionist and anti-Brexit campaigner, was always the front-runner, with strong support from the Government and Sinn Féin, anxious to burnish its inclusivity credentials.

The second seat was harder to call, with the former Fianna Fáil TD for Donegal Niall Blaney the early favourite. According to one TD, this was partly because Blaney had indicated that he is not interested in running again for the Dáil and "wouldn't have been a threat to anyone".

Sinn Féin weren’t buying that. The public line was that they are sick and tired of Fianna Fáil and Micheál Martin’s attacking them and in a two-horse race would vote for the least objectionable (Fine Gael) candidate. In reality they were never going to back a Blaney in Donegal and risk harming Pádraig Mac Lochlainn’s chances of regaining a Dáil seat there.

In these days of tight margins the Seanad result tells us that when political expediency demands it, power beckons and the numbers are there, all sorts of strange alliances are possible.

Whatever you say, say nothing

The Sinn Féin TD David Cullinane worked himself into a lather of righteous indignation in the chamber on Wednesday, thoroughly disgusted by the effrontery of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, who disrespected Sinn Féin by not turning up for its Topical Issue motion on Brexit.

Instead Simon Coveney sent along a minion from Co Clare by the name of Pat Breen, who is but a lowly Minister of State.

Cullinane, who represents Waterford, stopped short of saying "Do you know who we are?" as he berated the absent Tánaiste for showing such disrespect to him and his colleagues Brian Stanley and Martin Kenny.

The “Tropicals” are an important part of the Dáil day, when TDs get a chance to raise pressing issues of national or local concern with the relevant Minister. They submit topics, and the Ceann Comhairle selects four of them for debate. Senior Ministers, if at all possible, are expected to attend and deal with issues relating to their departments

Cullinane felt his party’s intention to talk about Brexit had been well flagged. “Yet there is no sign of the Minister with responsibility for this area. That is an absolute disgrace,” he said. “The Minister for Foreign Affairs should be here to hear the concerns of the three Sinn Féin Deputies on this issue, and he hasn’t bothered to turn up, for whatever reason.”

As Cullinane thundered on, Stanley and Kenny sat beside him expressionless.

“And if he wasn’t in a position to be here, then we should have been informed of that, which is the rule under Standing Orders.”

Oh, but he was fuming.

“So I want to protest in the strongest possible terms, given the gravity of these issues, that the Minister himself is not here.”

“Hear! Hear!” Stanley and Kenny roared.

Actually, they didn’t. There was a marked lack of solidarity. Neither said a word. They didn’t look at their outraged colleague, who concluded his rant with a conciliatory “No disrespect to the minister who is sitting across from me.”

Breen didn’t look too bothered, despite Cullinane’s relegating him to the role of the organ grinder’s monkey.

And where was Simon Coveney? He was in Derry, discussing Brexit with business and political leaders. Among the people he met at a luncheon hosted by the chamber of commerce was Elisha McCallion, Sinn Féin MP for the Foyle constituency. As part of his trip the Tánaiste also visited the Londonderry Bands Forum and the Bloody Sunday museum.

Coveney told the Belfast Telegraph he met a broad section of business and regional representatives at the chamber event. "It was a really useful opportunity to update members of the chamber on progress in the EU-UK negotiations and to outline the Government's key priorities in that process."

On Wednesday morning, in accordance with Standing Orders, the Minister’s staff contacted the offices of two of the three Sinn Féin TDs to say he couldn’t take their Brexit-related Topical Issue because of his Brexit-related commitments in Derry. They couldn’t get through to Cullinane’s office.

Kenny and Stanley mustn’t have passed on the message, hence the subdued reaction to their fired-up colleague’s shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later approach to Coveney’s absence.

Does Michael Healy-Rae think the sun comes up because of him?

Sometimes the Dáil feels like just one elaborate vehicle for the Michael and Danny Healy-Rae show. The Kerry politicians are expert self-publicists, while wailing that rural TDs like themselves are ignored in parliament and ballyragged by the Dublin meeja. They complain about being ridiculed and stereotyped, then mark their arrival for the first session of the Dáil by step-dancing on the bonnet of a mucky jeep outside Leinster House. Michael Healy-Rae has even secured a special dispensation from Oireachtas authorities to wear his trademark cap in the chamber.

It must be difficult for TDs who have to share the constituency with them.

Minister of State Brendan Griffin, who is from Castlemaine, had a pop at Michael Healy-Rae on social media this week. He was annoyed by a big piece in the local newspaper that had Healy-Rae claiming responsibility for the reintroduction of the local-improvement scheme, or LIS, for roads all over the country; "€725,000 roads fund due to my work" was the headline, alongside a photograph of the triumphant TD.

Griffin tweeted a picture of a cartoon rooster crowing at sunrise alongside a screenshot of the article. “MHealyRae like the rooster who thinks the sun comes up because of him. LIS in FG manifesto! Stop claiming credit for work by @MichaelRingFG”.