More than two hours were set aside on Wednesday afternoon to hear statements on the anniversary of the Belfast Agreement. It was a very worthy exercise promising lots of serious reflection and weighty speeches so the chamber cleared out in minutes when the talking began.
In the spirit of the great political achievement under consideration, peace and harmony reigned between Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald even though Leo had been very mean to his main Opposition rival during Leaders’ Questions.
The incident happened after she raised the rise in mortgage rates along with the “ongoing consequences of the housing emergency happening on your Government’s watch”. A standard opener from Mary Lou who rarely deviates from attacking Leo’s housing policy during their daily Dáil set-piece.
In what is now a very familiar routine, the Taoiseach responded by reciting his Government’s achievements on the housing front and this time with “real evidence” of progress in newly released figures from the Central Statistics Office showing almost a 20 per cent increase in new homes built in the first quarter of this year compared with the number for the first quarter last year.
“Something that even somebody…”
He stopped dead mid-sentence and, for a few seconds, there was nothing but the imaginary sound of cogs whirring furiously in Leo’s head. It was like he suddenly realised the words coming next and suffered a fleeting crisis over whether he should really say them. Then he rushed on regardless.
Informing Mary Lou that the CSO figures were “something that even somebody as mean spirited as you should be able to acknowledge, Deputy!”
Oooof! That was a bit harsh. A sharp intake of breath hissed loudly from the scandalised Sinn Féin benches.
Louise O’Reilly was incensed on behalf of her leader and scarleh for the Taoiseach. “You shouldn’t make personal remarks like that!”
The two leaders regularly trade insults across the chamber floor but even Mary Lou seemed a bit taken aback by the tenor of this latest barb from her main political rival. But she decided to ignore it.
Perhaps she was more bobulated than she let on. And that was before the Fianna Fáil TD for Clare, Cathal Crowe, pulled off a little stunt for her benefit during Questions on Policy and Legislation.
“I have an unusual question, he said, whereupon he didn’t so much ask a question as chance his arm. “I’ve a petition that I brought up today from Co Clare signed by 113 family descendants of the late Peadar Clancy – a great Irish patriot. These are the signatures of grandnieces, grandnephews, great-grandnieces and great-grandnephews.”
So far, so intriguing.
“There’s a Sinn Féin cumann in Ennis, Co Clare, that uses his name without family consent. They’ve written to Sinn Féin headquarters; it’s been flatly ignored. Commemoration has to be done with the consent of families. We cannot just pick names out of the air, claim lineage that doesn’t exist. We cannot exploit history for one’s current political programme. We have to respect families, we have to respect the dead.
“I submit this petition today to the leader of the Opposition. I don’t know if there is a whole lot to be said in this chamber, perhaps she would like to comment. Thank you.”
Cathal picked up the petition, stepped from his seat, walked across the floor and laid it down in front of an impassive Mary Lou McDonald, adding to the large sheaf of notes and speeches before her.
The Ceann Comhairle, bemused by what had just taken place, muttered he couldn’t see how this intervention was a policy or legislation-related matter. “Well, it doesn’t stop anyone else, in fairness to Deputy Crowe,” said Leo.
And “in fairness” to Deputy McDonald (Leo must have been feeling bad over his “mean-spirited as you” remark), it would be out of order for her to respond to the request for a comment.
However, he knew she would be speaking shortly about the Belfast Agreement “so perhaps that will be an appropriate opportunity for her to respond to the petition and Deputy Crowe’s appeal”.
The big discussion started about an hour later, opened by the Taoiseach.
“This month marks 25 years since the Good Friday Agreement was concluded. I believe that life on this island has been transformed in the last 25 years as a result of the agreement and the leadership, vision and capacity for compromise shown by those who made it possible at the time.”
And they were off.
Tánaiste Micheál Martin was next up: “The Good Friday Agreement is an achievement which the people of this island have every right to be proud of. It was a triumph for constitutionalism, for dialogue and for setting out a new vision for our future. It involved acts of great generosity and bravery, particularly from those who had always believed in and practised the values of peace, democracy and anti-sectarianism.”
And then on to the Sinn Féin leader, with that large sheaf of papers on her desk. She extracted her printed address, rose to her feet and began in uncharacteristic faltering fashion.
“This month... 20... Ach…” She looked up from her page and across at the Taoiseach and Tánaiste.
“I was about to read your own speech back to ya!” she confessed. “Gabh mo leithscéal. That would have been quite a turn, wouldn’t it?”
“It’s the new coalition,” shouted Mattie McGrath. “The new coalition.”
“I was about to read it,” repeated Mary Lou, in disbelief.
Micheál thought she was talking to him.
“It’s sooo good that you are tempted to do so,” he smiled.
There was an immediate correction from across the floor.
“No. It was Leo’s speech I was reading,” she told the Tánaiste tartly, crushing his feelings. “It wasn’t your speech Micheál, actually.”
There was real sting in that “actually” and poor Micheál was stung.
You only had to look at smirking Leo to see how utterly thrilled he was with himself. Still. It might have been worse.
Mary Lou could have picked up the petition delivered to her by Cathal Crowe instead of the courtesy scripts supplied on behalf of Leo and Micheál and started reading out the names of the 113 descendants of the patriot hero, Peadar Clancy, whose treasured name they do not wish to see appropriated – as they clearly see it – by one of her Sinn Féin cumanns in Co Clare.
Will the Clancy family members finally get a response from the party to their long-standing complaint? It would seem mean-spirited of them not to.