A minister who stays at home – by choice or otherwise – during the annual St Patrick’s Day airlift is known in political circles as the Designated Survivor.
If the entire government is wiped out in a freak contaminated shamrock catastrophe, their colleague left at home takes over the running of the country.
Think of the US drama of the same name starring Kiefer Sutherland.
Minister of State Mary Butler is this year’s Designated Survivor.
She has certainly earned that title.
It’s been a tough year for Mary and it began on St Patrick’s Day 2022, when she represented the Irish Government in Brussels.
On March 17th, she visited the city’s landmark Manneken Pis statue with Irish ambassador Kevin Conmy. The famous peeing boy was dressed up in a little Aran sweater, a flat cap and emerald green breeches.
“There were loads of people coming and going and I got chatting to a lot of Irish people out celebrating St Patrick’s Day,” the Minister recalls. “Then one girl came up to me – she was on holidays with her sister – and said she recognised me from home and we had a chat. She went off but then doubled back.
“And she said, ‘Mary, do I mind if I say something to you?’
“And then she said: ‘My sister is a hospital consultant in America and she said to tell you – you might know this already – but you have a basal cell carcinoma, a BCC, on your nose and you need to get it looked at straight away.”
Which she did. After undergoing tests back home in Waterford, the chance diagnosis was confirmed.
Mary got on with her work as Minister of State at the Department of Health with responsibility for mental health and older people, eventually going in for a procedure during the summer to have the skin cancer removed. Unfortunately, it proved unsuccessful.
“I had the second operation under full anaesthetic on my birthday, September 29th, two days after the budget.”
Thankfully, it was a success. But the Fianna Fáil TD for Waterford had to stay off work for the month of October, returning to a full diary in November and December.
“The pace was so relentless, I was really looking forward to the Christmas break. Then I contracted Covid and was quite sick – I tested positive for a full 13 days. I got bronchitis earlier this month.”
So this year Mary, who has only gone on two overseas trips since becoming a Minister, is staying put.
“I volunteered to stay behind.
“I’m well able to do my job but I think I should fully recharge my batteries. I’m going to remain at home in Portlaw and go to as many parades as I can in Waterford. I love St Patrick’s Day and I’ve had quite a year since the last one.”
Open Goal of the Week awards.
The Ballon d’Or goes to Sinn Féin’s Matt Carthy.
The Balloon d’Ork goes to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.
Ivana Bacik set up the move and, with an oblivious Leo off his line, Matt took the ball on the volley and fired it into the back of an unguarded net.
The incident happened during Taoiseach’s Questions on Wednesday when Ivana asked about the use of Chinese-manufactured security cameras in Leinster House and Government Buildings.
“I know the OPW is conducting a review but I think we require an urgent update given that other parliaments, including the European Parliament, have discontinued the use of Hikvision cameras because of concerns about Chinese surveillance of European institutions,” she said.
This cameras controversy is just one of a number of national security issues to come to light recently. The Labour leader mentioned the cyberattacks on Munster Technological University and the HSE, the involvement of republican dissidents in organised crime, and ongoing concerns about Russian government operations and possible espionage in Ireland.
She reiterated a call she made last year for Opposition leaders to get regular briefings on matters of national security, something which is a common practice in other countries.
“Would you agree that in a democracy, Opposition leaders should be briefed on matters of national security and will you put in place a system to do so?”
The Taoiseach replied he would certainly give the matter some thought. As it stands, he doesn’t get regular quarterly or monthly national security briefings. “It tends to happen on a relatively ad hoc basis, as needed.”
There isn’t a tradition here of providing such briefings, but maybe that should change, mused Leo.
Then he strayed from the goal line and took his eye off the ball.
“I know it is done in other countries but we would need appropriate safeguards around that and absolute confidence around it,” began Leo. “And all Opposition leaders aren’t the same, eh, in that regard, to put it that way.”
Matt saw his chance and pounced.
“And not all Ministers are the same at keeping things confidential!”
He was never going to miss that sitter.
Attack of the bots
Ivana Bacik was one of only three politicians from outside the two main Government parties who were put on the Kremlin’s infamous naughty steppe list last year.
The other two are Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl (an autonomous body) and Independent Senator Rear-Admiral Gerard Craughwell.
As she urged the Taoiseach to establish formal briefings on national security, deputy Bacik elaborated on the Russian element of her concerns, which include the large number of accredited Russian diplomats based in Dublin and a US State Department report which estimates that Russia has covertly spent more than $300 million in recent years to influence politicians in Europe and further afield.
“Personally, since I was named on the Russian sanctions list along with many others in this House, a large number of anonymous – or bot – accounts are now targeting my posts on social media,” she said.
We checked with Charlie Flanagan, the former Minister for Foreign Affairs and chair of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, who proudly includes “sanctioned by Russia” in his Twitter bio.
He tells us that he too has been targeted by Putin’s web brigades but adds that the Russian trolls are not the worst.
“I’m more worried about the Shinnerbots who continue to threaten me regularly.”
Wonder what they make of Charlie’s habit of tweeting his personal music choices for the enjoyment of his followers?
His latest recommendation was a Valentine’s Day special: a video of Finbar Furey and Imelda May crooning When You Were Sweet Sixteen.
Can music soothe the savage bot?
Big fish to fry
“Happy St Valentine’s Day,” said Galway-based Senator Seán Kyne, at the start of his contribution during the Seanad Order of Business on Tuesday.
He then launched into his own St Valentine’s Day massacre of the Inland Fisheries Ireland (IFI) top brass and the Minister for the Environment, Eamon Ryan, over the controversy currently engulfing the State agency.
“He’s gone and done it. He’s dismissed the board of Inland Fisheries Ireland. Minister Ryan has completed the department’s and chief executive officer’s work of last spring, targeting the board and finally getting rid of it.
“There’ll be celebrations in IFI HQ in Citywest today, and in the department HQ in Adelaide Road. The house, it seems, always wins,” he began at the start of what was a very fiery and angry speech.
He accused the CEO of running the IFI as “a fiefdom” and said he hoped the minutes of a recent board meeting “survive the shredder”.
Leas-Chathaoirleach Mark Daly looked increasingly concerned as the fuming Senator talked of “injustice, fraud and incompetence…”
“Be careful,” cautioned Daly. “I know you are making statements in the public interest but you have to balance that against allegations that could be used against…”
“Absolutely,” he agreed. “The CEO had a statement out very quickly today after the board was sacked. Delighted with himself.” Eamon Ryan is a decent man, he added, but is “totally misguided” and “wrongly advised”.
The Leas-Chathaoirleach implored him to ease up a little.
Seán just opened up the throttle a little more.
“The whole saga is not distinguished; it is disgusting. It is rotten, it’s corrupt and, in fact, it is worthy of a film.”
Seán Kyne is extremely exercised by this issue.
A number of his Fine Gael colleagues were also concerned about the decision to stand down board members at their parliamentary party meeting on Wednesday.
Our own Harry McGee, who has been closely following the saga, reported that Senator Kyne led the discussion. “Several sources said Mr Kyne’s contribution was “angry”, “passionate” or “shouty”.
We’re told the former TD for Galway West got so carried away the Taoiseach had to tell him to calm down.
“You don’t have to shout at me!” snapped Leo. “I can hear you.”
Maybe Martin McDonagh could do the fillum?