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Miriam Lord: Mary Lou fires up the burners to roast new Taoiseach, but Simon Harris keeps his cool

Opposition couldn’t wait to give Harris a good grilling at his first Leaders’ Questions, although there was a marked absence of first-day fireworks

A disgracefully restrained debut from the new Taoiseach.

And the same goes for Mary Lou McDonald, although to be fair to the Sinn Féin leader she was facing her third taoiseach in six years and that would wear anybody out.

Anticipation was heightened in advance of Simon Harris’s launch into the knockabout land of Leaders’ Questions by the Opposition’s fury last Wednesday when he failed to show in the chamber on his first day in the top job.

That empty chair proved irresistible for instantly affronted TDs who knew a week in advance that he wouldn’t be there. In fact, it’s not the done thing for Taoisigh to get stuck into the parliamentary cut and thrust in the immediate aftermath of their elevation – a quick perusal of the record tells us that almost all of Harris’s predecessors over the last few decades had a least a week to get used to their altered status before braving the Dáil.


Still. It’s never too late to get the bile rolling.

For Simon Harris, there was all that Fine Gael “new energy” to unleash on mesmerised TDs. And for Opposition leader Mary Lou McDonald, it was the start of a mission to put manners on him.

The press gallery filled up to witness their opening clash.

The chamber ... well, not so much.

The Taoiseach was so keen he arrived into the chamber a few minutes before everyone else.

Proceedings opened with him formally reading the list of his senior and junior Ministers in to the record. He raced through the names, perhaps conscious of the brooding presence of veteran backbencher Alan Farrell in the back row.

Alan holds the dubious record of being the only member of the 2011 intake of new FG TDs not given some sort of ministerial preference in the course of the last three terms. But greatness would soon be thrust upon the neglected shoulders of the deputy for Dublin Fingal.

By the end of the day he was be the new chair of the Fine Gael parliamentary party.

The chimineas were ablaze in Malahide on Tuesday night.

Mattie McGrath, meanwhile, fearing he might be eclipsed in the brawl to come, decided to get his dig in early.

At the end of the ministerial roll-call, Mattie leapt to his feet.

“On a point of information,” he roared to the Ceann Comhairle, gesturing towards the Taoiseach. “Why is he appointing Minister Ryan again as Minister for the Environment? He’s destroyed rural Ireland, farming and everything. I think it’s time he was moved out. You had the opportunity.”

Seán Ó Fearghaíl told him to sit down.

Mary Lou turned on the burners in preparation for her first roast. Straight in with questions on the waiting lists for young people requiring corrective spinal surgery.

Important questions that need to be asked, but there was a particular reason why she chose them above her regular crowd-pleaser topics of housing and the cost of living.

The same went for Social Democrats leader Holly Cairns and Bríd Smith of People Before Profit, who both raised the Government’s glaring lack of action a year after the publication of an expert report on abortion services.

What their questions had in common was Simon Harris and specific promises he made on these issues almost seven years ago, when he was Minister for Health.

While the new Taoiseach’s backbench colleagues could have made a better effort to put on a bit of a show for their new boss on his first outing at Leaders’ Questions (fewer than a dozen managed to turn up for him), his Cabinet colleagues turned out in force.

But only the Fine Gael ones. The exception was Stephen Donnelly, the Minister of Health, which was handy, given the nature of the topics under consideration. He sat next to the Taoiseach, looking glum.

This gave Simon the chance to explain why, when he made those promises, he was right at the time and that Stephen is now working on the issues in a changed climate. He is continuing the work that Simon started and has a “renewed focus” on the situation and is “trying to re-engage and refresh”.

It seemed that Leo Varadkar’s successor (the former taoiseach wasn’t around on Tuesday) was also trying to refresh the Dáil’s daily set-piece with a new, dialled-down approach.

He talked about “engaging in good faith” with his Opposition counterparts during these exchanges, as if this was a huge shift in the terms of engagement. He made a point of replying to the questions he was asked and then pointing this out to his questioners.

There was a bang of peace, love and understanding about it all.

That’ll never do. It’ll never last.

We also learned that not only does Simon Harris speak very fast, he also speaks very, very quietly. Some of the time it was almost impossible to hear him. And as he looked up and nodded across the floor while furiously taking notes, we also noticed that he is left-handed.

Some observers felt the new Taoiseach was deliberately keeping his voice low as a tactic to keep Leader’s Questions as uncontroversial we possible. It seems more likely that he has decided not to raise his voice.

Some minor argy-bargy with Mary Lou at the end of their exchange didn’t please the audience waiting for some first-day fireworks.

The Sinn Féin leader painted a harrowing picture of the plight of children and young adults who desperately need surgery for spina bifida and scoliosis. She talked of meeting the parents and families crying out for action.

The Taoiseach countered her stark figures with Government figures of progress made in reducing the numbers waiting more than four months for their treatment.

He hoped that when Sinn Féin engages with them as a party with “all the solutions to all of the issues” it will also have “the good grace” to tell them that its alternative budget allocated €500 million less to the health service than the Government provided.

A brief scuffle broke out.

“Not true,” shouted David Cullinane. “Blatantly not true.”

The Taoiseach argued otherwise.

“Nonsense,” insisted Louise O’Reilly.

“Misinformation,” said Cullinane.

If people don’t believe him they can check the SF alternative budget for themselves, said Simon. “It’s available on”

The Sinn Féin deputies called for a fact check.

The Taoiseach appealed to a higher power.

He glanced up at the press gallery.

“Fact-check it,” he loudly whispered. “”.

An uneventful Leaders’ Questions ambled harmlessly into an even more uneventful Questions to An Taoiseach.

Mary Lou McDonald was as láthair.