Politics

Taoiseach easily needled on teacher misunderstanding

If only the anti-vaxx brigade were as easily needled as our thin-skinned Taoiseach. The entire population would be fully jabbed in jig time with a relaxed Christmas now in prospect.

A year and a half ago, Micheál Martin finally achieved his political heart’s desire. But living the dream he is not.

The Fianna Fáil leader took the reins of power in the teeth of a pandemic and has been battling to control the medicine and the message ever since. But happy to do it. Happy to hold the most powerful office in the land with a real job of work ahead of him.

Yet with each hard-won success along the road to conquering the virus, Micheál is discovering that Covid-19 has more turns in it than Corkscrew Hill. When it seems like the end is in sight (the very strong vaccine uptake seemed so promising) and restrictions are cautiously lifted, case numbers and hospital admissions start climbing again.

Corrective measures are proposed and he is lambasted. Then he gets scant credit if they work because the narrative has already moved on to lambasting him for not reopening the country quickly enough.

An increasingly weary public hears about committees meeting about meetings with never-ending talk around possibly introducing agents such as antigen tests, proper ventilation equipment and booster shots. There are rolling discussions about imminent rollouts rolled out ages ago in other jurisdictions. Whatever happened to the “speed trumps perfection mantra”?

So it’s a rough time for a new Taoiseach trying to keep national spirits up in the face of constant opposition harassment, particularly if he is looking over his shoulder for a scene-stealing Tánaiste while relying on a less-than-stellar line-up of Fianna Fáil Ministers for close support.

And the pressure certainly seems to be getting to Micheál.

He was irritable and impatient during Leaders’ Questions, preferring to complain about Sinn Féin’s well-worn populist approach to adversarial politics instead of dealing with Mary Lou McDonald’s pertinent questions about the uninspiring song and dance his Government is making about addressing the rising Covid figures.

Hurt reaction

Pointing out how she shamelessly shoehorns in the clichés for maximum sound bite exposure does not address a valid query. Party politics don’t cut ice with people wondering why a big booster campaign (Simon Coveney has offered Army assistance) isn’t already under way for anyone eligible for a third shot or why antigen tests aren’t freely available at every corner chemist or why long-promised air filtration devices have yet to reach most schools.

The Opposition is there to ask the why.

The Taoiseach’s hurt reaction to hardly surprising criticism does not instil optimism in anxious minds. When the Sinn Féin leader spoke of “dithering, delaying and indecision” on the latest urgent issues in this constantly evolving crisis, he accused her of “taking a divisive approach to Covid-19 from the start”.

Micheál can furnish chapter and verse of how his approach to sticking by the expert medical advice has been successful. That the ingrates across the chamber floor will never acknowledge anything is becoming his default reaction. They can do this because they aren’t the ones in charge.

And they want to know what is happening now.

A Dáil argument with the Taoiseach and Mary Lou is par for the course these days. But Micheál’s currently fragile temperament turned nature on its head on Wednesday when the Labour leader’s turn came around.

Alan Kelly is supposed to do the theatrics. When gaskets need to be blown, AK47 is your man. In the natural scheme of things, it is the Taoiseach who is supposed to complain about Deputy Kelly roaring and shouting at him, not the other way around.

Instead, the pair of them had a glorious row over what appeared to be nothing more than a verbal misunderstanding on Tuesday afternoon. That evening it sparked an unremarkable bout of noisy combustion from Kelly, dressed up with some indignant social media squawking from his education spokesman, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin.

Kelly said he approached the Taoiseach as he was preparing to leave the chamber and asked him if teachers would be required to observe the latest restrictions by staying at home for five days if somebody in their household had Covid.

Scandalised statement

He was so shocked with the answer that he swears he was given (that teachers would have to continue working) that he immediately sought out tweeting Aodhán to tell him what happened before rushing out a scandalised statement.

In less fraught circumstances, Micheál Martin might have nonchalantly dismissed the episode as a simple case of two men getting their wires crossed, with Kelly’s response nothing more than the usual histrionics.

Labour Party leader Alan Kelly: He is supposed to do the theatrics. When gaskets need to be blown, AK47 is your man. Photograph: Alan Betson
Labour Party leader Alan Kelly: He is supposed to do the theatrics. When gaskets need to be blown, AK47 is your man. Photograph: Alan Betson

Instead, he said at a press conference that he was “very angry” at the way his words were “miscontructed” by the Labour leader. Not only that, but the very brief exchange didn’t even happen in the Dáil chamber, as Kelly claimed.

Except the video of the session in question shows AK47 and Micheál in conversation as the Taoiseach is on his feet and gathering his papers, preparing to leave the chamber. No doubt in Alan’s mind afterwards about what was said to him. The subsequent denial was a spooked U-turn.

He took his umbrage to Leaders’ Questions because as God is his witness, and he will remember those words to his dying day, this is exactly what the Taoiseach replied when he inquired if teachers were bound by the new rule.

“No, teachers are exempt” is what Micheál said to him. Straight up. He had never come into the Dáil “and accused someone of telling porkies”.

The Taoiseach has a different version (somewhat undermined by his lack of awareness of where the conversation took place). It transpired that there was an angry phone call between the two when Micheál heard what the Labour leader was saying about him.

“You learn something new every day,” he said icily to Kelly.

“I learned something about you yesterday that I will not forget, and that will govern our relationship for here onwards,” he continued in clipped tones.

“I’ve never seen the likes of it before, in terms of what transpired,” fumed the Taoiseach, thin-lipped and clearly riled up.

‘Cool it!’

Kelly’s eyes widened. Mary Lou nearly swallowed her face mask. The TDs present perked up considerably. This was quite a spat.

“Extraordinary,” whistled Micheál, giving a breathless account of their “30 or 40-second engagement” before adding: “I’m just putting it straight now.”

Kelly roared: “If you want to call me a liar, call me a liar.”

The Taoiseach insisted: “I never said those words.”

At one stage, he told Kelly to keep his voice down and “calm it down! Cool it!”

Kelly said he wouldn’t be intimidated by “your threats and roaring down the phone” inside and outside the chamber.

The Taoiseach wasn’t exactly calm either.

He was drinking a glass of water during those disputed words with Kelly. Perhaps that was where the misunderstanding arose. Perhaps Micheál was trying out a bit of ventriloquism – “a gottle of geer”. That sort of thing.

Or maybe it was simply a case of a misplaced comma.

Alan thinks the Taoiseach said: “No, teachers are exempt.”

But maybe he said: “No teachers are exempt.”

That would explain it. Commas are important.

And Micheál needs to calm down and chill.

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