The Ceann Comhairle was released back into the wild on Tuesday afternoon. Such a lovely sight to see Seán Ó Fearghaíl, awash with antibodies, kicking up his heels and gambolling into the Dáil chamber before ascending the dais and wafting his voluminous ceremonial robe into the big leather chair.
Or something like that.Here in Leinster House it seems if you’re not sick of The Covid, you’re sick with The Covid.
The Ceann was out with it last week and TDs were happy to see him returned to light duties after Leaders’ Questions and the usual row over the weekly agenda was out of the way. Leas Cheann Comhairle Catherine Connolly remained in charge of the whip and chair for the more vigorous openers.
The Taoiseach, having spent his first two hours getting annoyed with people for punching holes in the Government’s Covid strategy and then tearing strips off its beefed-up Mica compensation plan, cheered up when Séan reappeared.
Something to smile about at last. “Welcome Back” he beamed through his general Covid crankiness. It’s been a long road and Micheál Martin is finding it increasingly difficult to cope with the Opposition’s annoying habit of, well, opposing all the time.
Since when did that sort of carry-on start?Róisín Shortall of the Social Democrats has been on the case from the very start. She doesn’t let the Taoiseach, his Minister for Health or the Government away with anything.
This week, she decided to get stuck into Micheál over antigen testing, but only as a means to demonstrate how his overall stewardship of the latest phase has been “haphazard” and “chaotic”, lacking in “urgency, cohesion and rationality”.
The approach to providing subsidised antigen tests has been all over the place. “More like Lanigan’s Ball – in again and out again – than fact-based and deliberative” and everything wrapped up “with the Minister’s glib advice that people should shop around”.
Róisín of the Perpetual Disappointment had only one response: “Beyond contempt”.
Paul Murphy dubbed it “healthcare by Lidl’s middle aisle”.
Micheál firmly rebutted the charges with Ireland’s top of the table ranking in Europe for the biggest percentage of population vaccinated and sundry other impressive figures. “I would respectfully suggest to you, deputy, that this country’s performance is anything but chaotic,” he concluded.
Róisín was in a good mood so she said she wouldn’t mention the lack of capacity in testing, chaotic scenes at vaccination centres or the lack of ventilation for schools. No. She would stick with the antigen tests.
Quality control is the issue now. How can he guarantee affordability and quality? How does he propose to ensure “ongoing robust monitoring”?
The Taoiseach was puzzled. He said in the last few weeks she had been pushing for more antigen testing and for it to happen much faster. “Now you’ve come back around the scrum to say ‘well, actually, slow down somewhat now and don’t have it as freely available’.”
Róisín darting back around the scrum was a disconcerting image we weren’t expecting.
The rejection of the Government’s new Mica redress scheme by Opposition TDs from Donegal also came as a matter of regret to Micheál. “There’s a very good accommodation here, in my view,” he told Thomas Pringle (Ind) and Pearse Doherty (SF) who brought up the issue during Leaders’ Question.
Pádraig Mac Lochlainn (SF) also flatly rejected the proposals when he got his chance.
That left the two remaining Deputies for Donegal – Minister for Agriculture, Charlie McConalogue and former minister for education Joe McHugh, who have been having a fairly miserable time of it back in the constituency, by all accounts. Neither made it into the chamber for the Mica exchanges but Charlie came in later to move a motion on State funding for the horse and greyhound racing industry.
They subsequently issued statements welcoming the enhanced redress scheme. “A tremendous outcome for homeowners,” said McConalogue.
Again, the Taoiseach’s patience was wearing thin on this very contentious subject. The scheme will cost €2.3 billion which is “a very substantial contribution by the taxpayer and the exchequer” he told Pringle, who was “shocked” by the terms.
Micheál said the Government wasn’t responsible for the defective blocks used to build homes. “We didn’t cause any problems. I didn’t cause any problems.”
Pringle batted the responsibility right back. “No regulation. That caused the problem.”
The Taoiseach’s irritation bubbled to the surface again.
“No, sorry. People, everyone in life has responsibilities and let’s stop trying to excuse people.” Regulatory frameworks exist now and they existed back then but “certain people didn’t adhere to the law. That’s the point. But no-one will ever call that out because it doesn’t suit to call it out. The Government must always be the first resort”.
Pringle wasn’t going to stand for the Taoiseach saying the people were responsible for the breaches of the regulations. “No they are not.”
Micheál protested. He didn’t say that.
“That’s what you said in your response. You did.”
“Aah, I did not.”
He was referring to “those who produced the defective blocks” and not the homeowners who didn’t know about it.
“Ah, come on. Take that back please, now. I think you should take that back.”
Interestingly, there was Government backbench support for him when he disputed Deputy Pringle’s assertion that the new redress scheme leaves people “in the same position”.
There were shouts of “No, they’re not” from the Government side.
“Yes, they are” shot back the Donegal TDs across the floor. The other deputies present stayed quiet.
And back to Covid, where everyone continued to annoy the Taoiseach. This time by questioning why the Bill to continue mandatory quarantine is being guillotined at the end of the week without proper debate.
But it’s the same one as before, argued Micheál, waving his notebook around like an exasperated múinteoir.
In the last phase of the pandemic the Opposition was “screaming for it. We couldn’t bring it in fast enough” Now it’s outrageous and the Government is bringing in legislation to restrict human rights.
“I mean, which way do ye want it?”
The Taoiseach needs a holiday.
“Talk about incoherence? Inconsistency?” he sighed. “Every single month it changes in here. I’m simply saying that the public health measures have to be extended. That is all we are doing. The Deputies are familiar with them . . .They’re not the third secret of Fatima.”
Then Danny Healy Rae complained that people in Kerry weren’t getting tested.
“We gave out 212,000 PCR tests last week and nobody got them, apparently,” shrugged Micheál, sounding like he was ready to throw his hat at it.
But that’s the Opposition for you.
Always bloody opposing.