This was no laughing matter.
Just because he flapped his jumbo clown shoes into the middle of his own joke didn’t mean the Taoiseach had to see the funny side of it.
“Like, some people are laughing at me,” he protested to the Ceann Comhairle. How dare they.
Here’s the gag which left them gasping across the chamber floor: “I think it’s important that people should know the facts before they make statements. Nobody wants to come in here and make a statement and then find out that something that they have said is incorrect – and that can happen.”
Bang up to date and perfect deadpan delivery too.
For all those who endured the last two weeks of Dáil delirium over the mistaken declaration of minor election expenses, it would have been hard not to crack a smile. Unless you happened to be Paschal Donohoe, who probably felt a shiver run up his spine as his boss indirectly revisited his recent statement of clarification torment in the chamber.
Et tu, Leo?
Too soon! Too soon!
Of course the Opposition sniggered.
Not that Leo Varadkar was in any way alluding to his good friend and colleague Paschal, whose purgatory appears to have passed. This time, it’s the Taoiseach who is fighting to stay out of the frame over allegations that he was among ministers complicit in a decades-long government policy to do elderly nursing home residents out of money rightly due to them by the State.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald and Social Democrats co-leader Róisín Shortall were keen to find out how much he knows about claims by a whistleblower, published at the weekend by the Irish Mail on Sunday, that the State employed a strategy to deter these people and their families from claiming refunds of their nursing home fees. They say Varadkar must have been aware of the situation when he was minister for health between 2014 and 2016.
He defended himself robustly when the Dáil returned on Tuesday, reminding deputies this is “an historic issue that dates back to the 1970s”. He argued he could hardly be expected to remember details relating to a policy matter from years ago, in his own case. While some documents have emerged in the public domain, the Taoiseach says the full facts have not been established yet.
There is no point in making a Dáil statement with limited information and then subsequently discovering it wasn’t accurate and having to slope into the chamber to correct the record.
“Because when things happen six or eight or 10 years ago – that does happen.”
Oh, we know.
Just ask Paschal. His incomplete information related to poster-hanging episodes in 2016 and 2020 and he was pilloried for a fortnight for forgetting the finer detail around it.
The Sinn Féin TDs giggled as they remembered what happened to the chastened Minister for Public Expenditure, because it was only seven days ago. Any time much longer than that and political memories start to fade. Sinn Féin proved every bit, if not more, forgetful when its own election returns were examined in the light of the postering palaver.
“And you know, like, some people are laughing at me, Ceann Comhairle, people who had to change their own declarations on multiple occasions,” huffed Leo. “So, you know, it’s a little bit much.”
But, for the life of him, the Taoiseach can’t remember what the mandarins told him about the nursing homes fee policy at the time. But he isn’t saying he was kept out of the loop by them.
“I must have been briefed on it,” he said. “The ministers who came before me and after me were briefed on it so I must have been as well. But I can’t tell you when, I can’t tell you by whom, I can’t tell you in what depth, in what detail. I can’t tell you whether it was written or verbal.”
But what he does know if that if he had been asked about the approach to nursing home payments at the time he would have supported what was “a sound policy approach and a legitimate legal strategy by the government at the time”.
The Taoiseach was looking for a week’s grace to look at the documents and check the records before rushing in and making any statements to the House. The new Attorney General, Rossa Fanning, has been drafted in to prepare a report for the next Cabinet meeting.
When they have assembled all the files the Government will put as much of them as they possibly can into the public domain. Unlike what is happening in some newspapers at the moment, it won’t be done in a “drip-by-drip fashion”, promised Leo. All that does is create “a false impression” of the situation.
As it is, he told Mary Lou McDonald, the matter has been “grossly misrepresented”. He accused her of acting “in a very irresponsible way” by putting questions to him without knowing the full story.
The Sinn Féin leader did not go easy on the successive governments which “heartlessly” pushed people to the breadline by knowingly imposing “illegal” charges. She also did her best to stitch the Taoiseach of the day into the narrative, claiming that he and his ministerial colleagues had acted in bad faith.
Róisín Shortall was equally scathing, wondering why nobody, over that entire 30-year period, said: “Hang on, why are we not providing medical card patients with proper care when they need it?”
As the Taoiseach stuck to his argument that the full facts need to be established first – “although you seem to knew them all already,” he scornfully told Mary Lou – there was sense that Opposition party leaders were holding back a little.
For Sinn Féin in particular, having suffered a degree of humiliation over their own expenses after going full tilt for Paschal Donohoe’s scalp, there would be no going to town over this “scandal” just yet.
Meanwhile, three Oireachtas committees also want to examine the background to the nursing homes controversy, so it will rumble on for some time yet.
But the Taoiseach was right about one thing: no point in running your mouth off without all the facts.
Unfortunately, he observed his own rule for all of a few minutes.
When asked by Labour leader Ivana Bacik about the position of Damien English, the minister of state who resigned having made a false declaration on a planning application, Leo fobbed her off.
The application in question was a matter for Meath County Council and any disciplining of the former minister was Fine Gael’s business.
“The internal procedures that we have in our party are confidential and are internal matters, just as yours are, deputy, and I know there are disciplinary matters under way in the Labour Party at the moment and I wouldn’t be asking you in the Dáil questions about those...”
Really? What has he heard? Who’s in trouble? It can’t be AK47 – they got rid of him.
Ivana felt compelled to come in before the end of the session to make a point of order.
“Taoiseach, in your response to me earlier on the Order of Business, you suggested that there were disciplinary matters under way in the Labour Party. I would ask you to withdraw that comment. I have listened back and there are no disciplinary matters under way in the Labour Party. I can assure you of that.”
Leo looked over at her.
“If that’s the case I’m happy to withdraw.”