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Miriam Lord: Mary Lou – yes, Mary Lou – accuses Taoiseach of ‘playing to the gallery’

A tone of icy civility is emerging between Simon Harris and the Sinn Féin leader but on Wednesday the air turned positively Arctic

Mary Lou McDonald was appalled.


“Really,” she dripped. “I mean, if this is what we are reduced to ...”

She was almost lost for words.


What is the world coming to? What awful way of doing politics is the new Taoiseach trying to introduce?

The Sinn Féin leader, furrowed of brow, removed her spectacles, looking perplexed. This was quite the eye-opener at the end of a strange first two days in the Dáil facing Simon Harris.

Hard though it must have been for Mary Lou to comprehend, this was actually happening in Dáil Éireann: a politician “playing to the gallery and television audience at home!”

Imagine that. It would never happen on her side of the House.

This moment of terrible realisation sprang from exchanges on Tuesday, when the Taoiseach claimed her party’s alternative health budget proposed spending far less money on healthcare than the Government.

Don’t take my word for it, he told people who might be looking in. Go to and check it out for yourself.

Sinn Féin’s TDs noisily rejected the charge.

Then on Wednesday, he thanked her for her question on cancelled hospital appointments before having a go at the party for publishing a “disingenuous press release” claiming HSE figures on such cancellations for 2023 were well up on the previous year, omitting to mention that an accompanying document was issued requesting that comparisons should not be made because the numbers are not reflective of the true situation due to data collection issues.

Simon held up the document in question. If politicians are putting information into the public domain, he told Mary Lou, it is important that it should be accurate.

The Sinn Féin leader pointed to the fact that 250,000 appointments were cancelled. “We don’t have to compare it with anything. It’s a record level of cancellations.” She stressed repeatedly that this is a record.

“It’s not a record,” he countered.

Mary Lou pulled him up for appearing more interested in how the statistics are presented than with the fact of the quarter of a million cancellations, 800 of which, she said, were for children awaiting chemotherapy.

Did he accept the figures?

“I don’t care whether you thank me,” she sighed. She just wants to see this problem sorted out now. “Your view of me is irrelevant on these issues.”

It was an odd thing to say. But then, this session was unfolding in an interesting way, not least in how a tone of icy civility is developing between the Taoiseach and the woman who wants to be taoiseach.

Simon Harris admitted the situation is far from satisfactory. “We have a hell of a way to go, I accept that,” he said, while pointing out that services, staffing and funding are improving. But he also strongly pushed back on Sinn Féin’s version of events, accusing the party of having a rather cavalier approach to the facts.

An emerging theme from team Harris.

“Leaders’ Questions isn’t about you and it’s not about me – on that we can agree. I’ve nothing but respect for you but that’s not what this is about,” he respectfully replied, before accusing his Sinn Féin counterpart of making a conscious decision to issue that press release before coming into the Dáil even though it did not include the important qualifier from the HSE.

“And you did,” he insisted, looking across to Mary Lou and her loudly protesting colleagues. “You can roll your eyes but you pushed it out and you all retweeted it.”

She was flabbergasted by his attitude. What about the serious issue of people missing out on hospital appointments?

“This is ludicrous.”

Not ludicrous, said the Taoiseach; he was doing this for “the people at home”. Asking her to remember “when you talk to the people at home you give them the facts”.

The Sinn Féin TDs were incandescent.

But he wasn’t finished.

What happened to their alternative health budget, the one which was up on their website until he mentioned it in the Dáil on Tuesday? “It disappeared and vanished like Shergar.”

Pearse Doherty combusted.

“Shameful. Lies. Ridiculous. Misinformation,” he bellowed.

The Taoiseach held up the document and asked Sinn Féin to put it back online. “I have a copy of it here.”

Mary Lou watched on as both sides heckled lumps out of each other until the Ceann Comhairle called a halt to the roaring.

The FG/SF web summit resumed a little later in proceedings.

“I am happy just to confirm for the Taoiseach that the health policy is very much on our website,” she smiled.

“It just went back up,” he retorted.

“No, it didn’t” she insisted. “It was never….”

Simon Harris, digital detective, jumped in.

“I have a screenshot. I’ll send it to you. I’ll text you.”

Well. That finished Mary Lou altogether. Has it come to this? That Dáil Éireann has now sunk to the level of a “Taoiseach scouring people’s websites and ...”

God between us and all harm ” ... playing to the gallery and television audience at home!”

Disappointed of Dublin Central was scandalised.

She searched for the words to describe this shocking development, but inspiration came there none.

“It’s rather, em, so ...” she murmured, voice trailing off.

“I learned from you,” declared Simon.

Whereupon a Fine Gaeler behind him shouted: “Where’s Shergar?”

Deputy McDonald, having made clear her views on the alien idea of TDs playing to the gallery and television audience, moved briskly on.

This might not have been the case had the exchange taken place during Leaders’ Questions, when the Sinn Féin benches were full and she had full-time firebrands Louise O’Reilly, David Cullinane and Pearse Doherty next to her on the front bench.

By the time questions on promised legislation came around, they had cleared off and left her with Maurice Quinlivan, who is more the strong, silent type. So the roof stayed on.

But there was a very brittle edge to the proceedings on Wednesday.

At one point, when seeking clarification on waiting lists for patients with scoliosis, Mary Lou reminded Simon that parents were watching very carefully and are “not interested in smart-alec responses from anybody”.

And he began his response with: “Thanks very much, and I appreciate your pledge not to engage in smart alecky comments ...”

A while later she said this of him: “New Taoiseach, young fogey, old fogey.”

He chuckled. “Young fogey, old fogey.”

Icy civility.

Frozen solid, for now.