A political year in review: Politicians show they can still push people’s buttons in Dáil’s centenary year

From broadband and Brexit to swings and printers, TDs kept up the tradition of irritating voters with bizarre behaviour, writes Political Editor Daniel McConnell

A political year in review:  Politicians show they can still push people’s buttons in Dáil’s centenary year

The year began with the Dáil celebrating its first centenary but ended with the Oireachtas battered and bruised following a number of controversies and calamities.

While the first Dáil gathered amidst the carnage of bloody conflict and war, this past year left the reputation of our parliament and its inhabitants sullied.

As it limps to its inevitable death, this “do-nothing” parliament stands defiled, sightless, feeble, and betrayed (to quote the great John Osborne) after a year of embarrassment and ineptitude.

From ‘Swing-gate’ to ‘Vote-gate’ and then to ‘Printer-gate’, from Angela Kerins suing the PAC to four TDs suing the Oireachtas, it is fair to say there were plenty of ups but mainly downs for the old lady of Kildare Street.

Dáil at 100

Amid great pomp and self-importance, the Dáil relocated to the Mansion House in January to celebrate the centenary of the inaugural sitting of the First Dáil in 1919.

Complete with speeches from President Michael D Higgins — he loves a good speech you know — and Ceann Comhairle Sean Ó Fearghail, the occasion was even deemed worthy of a commissioned sketch by the OPW.

It later emerged that over €930,000 was spent on commemorations and events for the centenary.

This included €16,500 on VIP services at Dublin Airport, almost €20,000 in accommodation at two of Dublin’s finest hotels, €200 for a harpist, and just over €10,000 for 5,000 Dáil-branded hats for the event.

Because they’re worth it

That near €1m spend was nothing to the gargantuan €17.3m spend on sprucing up Leinster House, work on which concluded during the summer.

The original budget for the work was €8m, but costs escalated as problems were discovered.

“As Michelangelo said to the Pope, ‘it will cost what it will cost’,” said Paul Conway, the now-departed superintendent of the Houses of the Oireachtas to the Irish Times.

The L’Oreal approach to public money — because they are worth it!

Brexit I — the last days of Theresa

There was humiliation for British prime minister Theresa May (remember her?) in January after she suffered a “humiliating” defeat in the House of Commons.

A political year in review:  Politicians show they can still push people’s buttons in Dáil’s centenary year

Her proposal to accept the withdrawal agreement was defeated by 432 to 202 in the meaningful vote.

It would turn out to be the first of three defeats on the withdrawal agreement before her ultimate departure.

With Ireland and the EU saying there could be no renegotiation of the deal, Ms May was in a corner with few options The scale of the defeat in January, however, badly weakened whatever latent authority Ms May had over her chaotic government and the Tory party.

This dramatically increased the risk of a disorderly Brexit. The Government immediately shut down normal business in the Dáil in order to pass contingency legislation to deal with a no deal.

The end of March deadline was pushed back to the end of October, but by then Ms May was gone as prime minister.

Protests at minister’s home condemned

In February, politicians and campaigners strongly condemned a protest group for targeting Simon Harris at his family home as the health minister faced ongoing demands to resign over the deepening children’s hospital and nurses strike scandals.

Government TDs, opposition parties, and the Irish Nurses and Midwives’ Organisation all hit out at the unprecedented situation after gardaí were called to Mr Harris’ home to clear 20 people protesting outside the property in Greystones.

Mr Harris, his wife, and three-week-old daughter were at home at the time of the protest by the Fingal Battalion Direct Action and Wicklow Says No groups.

Similar protests took place outside the homes of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and ministers Paschal Donohoe, Charlie Flanagan, Regina Doherty, and Richard Bruton.

National Broadband Plan

There was considerable head scratching when the Granahan McCourt consortium was named the preferred bidder by the Government in the National Broadband Plan (NBP) process, even though it was the sole remaining bidder left standing.

Despite the strong objections of the top official in the Department of Public Expenditure, Robert Watt, the Government stubbornly decided to proceed.

Watt and his officials argued against proceeding with the NBP. In the documentation, he told Paschal Donohoe that other projects could be at risk if the project was given the green light.

A political year in review:  Politicians show they can still push people’s buttons in Dáil’s centenary year

It later emerged that Mr Donohoe, his ministerial boss, also had private concerns about the spiraling cost of the NBP.

Documents released showed that Mr Donohoe raised these concerns only a day before the Government received the final tender for the project.

In a meeting on September 17 last year, Mr Donohoe also questioned a decision to grant ownership of the plan to the winning bidder, after it emerged that the Government would pay €2.9 bn for the project over 25 years.

Then, in July, the former state telephone company, Eir, claimed it could have delivered the NBP for under €1bn, a third of its estimated final cost.

The Government hit back, saying that a draft tender bid from Eir in late 2017 came in at a multiple of €1bn.

In November, the Cabinet signed the contract for the NBP, paving the way for the start of the rollout of high-speed broadband to almost 540,000 premises across the country.

Crowley waves goodbye

January 2019 also marked the departure from the national political stage of Cork MEP Brian Crowley, who announced his retirement on the grounds of ill-health.

At a press conference in the Rochestown Park Hotel, he announced that he would not be contesting the European elections in May.

He said his health would not allow him to give the people of Ireland South the campaign that they deserved and he felt he could not give the campaign to seek re-election the commitment it needed.

Mr Crowley admitted that he spent the past three and a half years “in a hospital bed” and said that he had been honest with people prior to the last election about his health difficulties.

A political year in review:  Politicians show they can still push people’s buttons in Dáil’s centenary year

“I never tried to hide the difficulties that might arise,” he said.

I promised people that I would make an announcement about my health and why I have been absent from the parliament.

He explained that he had undergone 30 surgeries in the past three-and-a-half years and said: “Each time they tried something and it failed, they had to try again. I never planned on being out for so long.”

Irish Examiner Political Correspondent Elaine Loughlin reported in May that Mr Crowley is entitled to severance payments of more than €350,000 over the next two years and a pension pot of €1.4m.

Dara Murphy goes bye bye

While Mr Crowley’s departure was expected and gracious, the same could not be said of the now former TD for Cork North-Central Dara Murphy, who resigned from the Dáil in December.

He had, in fairness, signalled he was not contesting the next general election as far back as 2018 but the former Fine Gael TD resigned to take up a new full-time post as deputy head of cabinet for Bulgarian EU commissioner Mariya Gabriel.

His poor attendance in the Dáil since he took up a job with the European People’s Party (EPP) — Fine Gael’s European party — in 2017 came into sharp focus.

It then emerged that his resignation from the Dáil entitled him to a severance and pension package of €500,000, while he also has become eligible for a €24,000 payment relating to his time on Cork City Council since the start of the month when he turned 50.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that Mr Murphy did not ask his permission to take up the role of campaign director for the EPP in 2017.

Mr Varadkar said he did not sanction Mr Murphy taking up the role, but knew about it. As broadcaster Sean O’Rourke said: “He never struck one as someone who struggled with self-confidence.” Ouch!

PAC your bags

In May, the Supreme Court found the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) acted unlawfully as a whole in its treatment of former Rehab CEO Angela Kerins when she appeared before two hearings of the committee in 2014.

Former Rehab CEO Angela Kerins
Former Rehab CEO Angela Kerins

In what was seen as a highly profound judgement as to the workings of Oireachtas Committees, the court stressed that the Oireachtas itself can act to limit the need or potential for court intervention in any similar case.

The Oireachtas can put in place an appropriate mechanism in the event of a committee “acting inappropriately”, said the Chief Justice, Justice Frank Clarke.

Responding to the judgement, Ceann Comhairle Sean O Fearghail apologised for what happened and said the way in which Ms Kerins was questioned should not occur again.

“I would personally apologise to Ms Kerins for the fact that happened and our absolute determination is to ensure that in what remains in the 32nd Dáil, and in future Dáileanna, that type of situation will not happen again,” said Mr Ó Fearghaíl.

The Kerins judgement was a watershed for us here in the Dáil. There has been much commentary on the outside of the chilling impact the Kerins judgement has on the Oireachtas.

A High Court claim for damages by Kerins has been adjourned until next month.

Attack on democracy itself

The country was stopped in its tracks in April by the shocking news of the death of Lyra McKee at the hands of so-called republicans.

Ms McKee, 29, was shot in the head while observing rioting in Derry’s Creggan estate. She was standing near a police 4x4 vehicle when she was shot after a masked gunman fired towards police and onlookers.

The New IRA admitted carrying out her killing. In a statement, the group offered “full and sincere apologies” to her family and friends.

Outpourings of sympathy came from across the political spectrum and vigils were held in Dublin and Derry.

A protest by friends of Ms McKee took place outside the office of Saoradh. A number of women smeared red paint in handprints on republican slogans outside the office.

The front page of the Irish Examiner on April 20.
The front page of the Irish Examiner on April 20.

President Michael D Higgins led tributes to Ms McKee and comforted her partner, Sara Canning, at the funeral service.

Fr Martin Magill’s homily calling on politicians to work together received a standing ovation. Several arrests were made in the weeks after her death.

Knowing which buttons to press

In a major shock to the political system, Fianna Fail TDs Timmy Dooley and Niall Collins were forced to step down from their front bench positions in October, when Dáil footage showed Mr Dooley appearing to motion Mr Collins toward his vote button before he left the chamber.

The row quickly escalated, with several ministers ,including Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, admitting to voting on behalf of other people who were in the chamber.

It became a plague on all the political houses in Leinster House and was a sorry reflection on how our TDs do their business.

An immediate tightening of the rules followed and now all TDs have to vote from their assigned seats.

Ultimately, a probe by the Dail’s Ethics Committee issued a warning to Fianna Fáil TD Lisa Chambers and cleared Barry Cowen.

However, fresh footage of Ms Chambers voting in the wrong seat emerged in early December.

Party leader Micheál Martin confirmed that he will not reinstate two TDs he removed from the Fianna Fáil front bench after the controversy.

Maria Bailey and Swing-gate

In the run up to the local and European elections on May 24, it was revealed that Dún Laoghaire TD Maria Bailey was suing the Dean Hotel in Dublin after she fell from a swing on a night out in 2016.

The case taken by Bailey against the hotel was revealed just four days before polling day and did huge damage to the Fine Gael election effort.

Her perceived offence was taking a case when her own Government was seeking to address the culture of vexatious claims.

A political year in review:  Politicians show they can still push people’s buttons in Dáil’s centenary year

Ms Bailey caused even more anger among her own party by announcing her decision to drop the case only after polls had closed.

However, she did fatal damage to her career by going on RTÉ Radio the following Monday with broadcaster Sean O’Rourke in what can only be described as a car crash interview.

Mr Varadkar came under pressure to drop her from the general election ticket but he decided to demote her as chairwoman of the Oireachtas Housing Committee.

The Irish Examiner later reported that Mr Varadkar initially spared her following pleas from Tánaiste Simon Coveney.

However, the controversy did not fade after TD Fergus O’Dowd said he’d prefer if she did not stand again.

Then came local motions of no confidence and ultimately Bailey was deselected by Mr Varadkar and replaced by local councillor and ministerial advisor Jennifer Carroll McNeill.

But it was a sorry saga from start to finish and brought Mr Varadkar’s judgement into question.

A day to forget for Leo and Mary Lou

Polling day on Friday May 24 represented the beginning of the so-called ‘Green Wave’ which, in truth, turned out to be more of a trickle.

Exit polls on the Friday night showed the Greens making considerable gains in the European elections, which only partially materialised. But, having been wiped out in 2011, the Greens certainly enjoying happier times.

It was an important milestone, too, for Leo Varadkar and Mary Lou McDonald, as it represented their first electoral test, and it is fair to say for both it was a day of disappointment.

For Ms McDonald, the loss of two MEPs (Lynn Boylan and Liadh Ní Riada) and the collapse of the party’s vote at local level was a serious reversal of fortune.

Lynn Boylan and Mary Lou McDonald
Lynn Boylan and Mary Lou McDonald

It dropped from 159 seats to 81 and, in some areas, its vote was as low as 5%. But, for Mr Varadkar, it was a more mixed picture.

On foot of the Bailey controversy, gains at local level were exceedingly modest. Having lost 105 seats in 2014, Fine Gael clawed back just 20 of those this time around. At European level, the party fared much better, winning five of the 13 MEP seats up for grabs.

Ultimately, for the second time, Fianna Fail returned as the largest party in local government with 279 seats and, more importantly, re-established a real footing in Dublin.

Chaos at the Children’s Hospital

In April, it emerged the final price of the National Children’s Hospital looked set to surge past €2bn after an independent report into the costs crisis warned that officials can do little to mitigate the runaway bill.

The damning conclusion was made by Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC), which warned that the hospital was never going to stay within budget because of widespread governance failures and “red flags” being missed from the start of the project.

The €1.43bn project cost estimate was set to rise by at least another €290m, bringing it to €1.73bn, while Vat and other design problems are likely to drag it above €2bn, far in excess of the original €400m figure quoted for the project.

A political year in review:  Politicians show they can still push people’s buttons in Dáil’s centenary year

It later emerged that other capital projects would have to be delayed or “re-profiled” as the Government sought to spin it, in order to meet the cost escalations.

‘So I hear you’re a racist now Father’

Following the less than stellar performance in the local and European elections, Leo Varadkar flew the kite that he may go for an early general election in the autumn.

But by the time the September think-ins came about, it was clear an early election was not happening. Which meant four by-elections had to be held to fill the Dáil seats vacated by the departure of Billy Kelleher, Frances Fitzgerald, Clare Daly, and Mick Wallace to the European Parliament.

The campaign quickly got dirty after reports surfaced about tweets about Travellers by Fianna Fáil senator and candidate Lorraine Clifford-Lee nine years ago.

She quickly apologised for any offence caused, which was accepted by Pavee Point.

Then Fine Gael’s Wexford candidate, Verona Murphy, caused outrage by suggesting that migrants to Ireland here would need to “deprogrammed” that and children as young as three could be manipulated by Islamic State.

Her own campaign manager, Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan, “categorically disassociated” himself from the comments, but the controversy would not die. On the eve of polling, Ms Murphy’s supporters posted a video suggesting she had been the subject of a media conspiracy.

Her boss was not best pleased.

“What changed is towards the end of the campaign she then released this video, which you may have seen which indicated that the apology wasn’t sincere and she tried to say that there was a media conspiracy, or a Dublin elite conspiracy against her,” said Mr Varadkar.

For me, that indicated, one that she wasn’t sincere in her apology and two that we would probably have more of this again. And that’s why I recommended that she be removed from the ticket and she has been.

Ms Murphy responded by saying in a radio interview that Fine Gael sought to silence her and she lashed out at Simon Harris, describing him as “one of the worst health ministers” in history.

He hit back by saying: “If we sought to silence her we clearly failed. The decision to deselect her is looking better by the moment.” Ouch!

Never again

The first job for the newly elected TDs was to vote in a motion of no-confidence in Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy.

Mr Varadkar’s decision to put probably one of the poshest politicians in the country in charge of the housing crisis has, even in terms of perception, called into question his judgement.

The tabling of the motion by the Social Democrats was dismissed as a stunt to garner attention during the by-election campaign.

However, in the run-up to it, it was clear that the numbers in the Dáil would be tight and there was talk that the Government would fall if the motion was successful, thereby causing an election in Christmas week.

After a heated, sometimes very personalised debate, the motion of no confidence went down by 56 votes to 53, with Independents Michael Lowry, Noel Grealish, and Denis Naughten supporting the Government.

The tone and tenor of the debate made clear, this fragile Dáil would not survive another similar vote.

Brexit II — Arise Sir Boris

With Theresa May departed, Boris Johnson’s arrival as British prime minister in May changed little in the short run, with him losing a succession of meaningful votes in the House of Commons.

A political year in review:  Politicians show they can still push people’s buttons in Dáil’s centenary year

Mr Johnson came to Dublin in early September and got a delicate kick in the balls.

Rejecting Mr Johnson’s rambling assurances that all would be well come October 31, Leo Varadkar said:

Prime Minister, negotiating FTAs with the EU and US and securing their ratification in less than three years is going to be a Herculean task for you.

"We want to be your friend and ally, your Athena, in doing so.”

The reference was subtle but devastating. For those of you not up to speed with your classics, the bottom line is that when Hercules went mad and killed his children, Athena stopped the disaster from getting worse by knocking him out.

Move forward to October and the key bilateral meeting between Mr Varadkar and Mr Johnson in Liverpool led both men to “see a pathway” to a Brexit deal following nearly three hours of intense talks on Merseyside.

They raised fresh hopes of a possible deal before a crucial European Council summit later that month. The talks lasted much longer than expected and, the statement said, focused on the “challenges of customs and consent”. In a signal that progress may have been made towards reaching a deal, the joint statement said the two leaders “agreed that they could see a pathway to a possible deal”.

With Westminister in stalemate, Mr Johnson moved for a general election, which was eventually held on Decemberr 12 and the Conservative prime minister was returned with “stonking great majority” of 80 seats.

His ‘get Brexit done’ mantra connected with the people and he is now assured of getting his withdrawal agreement through before January 31.

‘John Delaney could run Uefa’ — my backside

Five years ago, businessman Denis O’Brien said: “John Delaney could run anything, he could run Uefa.”

The political year ended with the embattled Football Association of Ireland (FAI) seeking an €18m bailout from the State, facing being wound up, under Garda investigation, in breach of its bank covenants and its former CEO publicly ridiculed.

Mr Delaney’s departure from the FAI began with Mark Tighe’s revelation of the €100,000 loan to the organisation because of a cash flow problem. Mr Delaney sought to injunct the Sunday Times to stop it publishing the story and, since then, a tidal wave of explosive details as to the dysfunctionality of the FAI has emerged.

But while other staff members were slapped with pay cuts, the national league lurched from crisis to crisis, and the women’s team left to go without proper gear, Mr Delaney’s extravagance appeared unending.

He would have been paid almost €3m during his final three years as an employee, far more than previously thought, it emerged this month.

Accounts published by the association show that, in addition to his annual salary of €360,000, Mr Delaney, 52, would have been due pension contributions worth €285,714 a year and assorted other benefits, bringing the total value of the package over the period in question to €2.943m.

Revised accounts for 2016 and 2017 showed emoluments — or total pay including pension contributions — for Mr Delaney totalled €1.945m, compared with original accounts which showed he was due €860,000 for the two years. The new accounts show he would have been paid €997,043 for 2018.

Mr Delaney was owed more than €2.1m under the terms of the contract he held, but this was settled earlier this year for €462,000. The accounts noted that “certain expenses incurred during 2017 and 2016 by the then CEO were of a personal nature, and these have now been disclosed as part of director’s emoluments”.

Government ‘disappointed’ at 10,000 homeless figure

The number of homeless people reached more than 10,000 for the first time in March.

Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy described the increase in the figures as “hugely disappointing”.

As disappointing as that was, the sad truth is that the numbers have stayed above the 10,000 mark ever since, and this is even after the Government massaged the figures.

In October, it was reported that homeless children are presenting at emergency accommodation hubs with underdeveloped swallow reflexes and problems chewing solid food, believed to be associated with a prolonged diet of non-perishable puréed food.

The homeless service organisation, Novas, said it noticed the problem occurring in children presenting at its ‘family hub’ services, who had spent lived for prolonged periods in hotel rooms with no access to cooking facilities.

There was public and political outrage in October after images emerged of a young homeless boy eating dinner off a piece of cardboard on a Dublin street. Five-year-old ‘Sam’ was pictured eating carbonara on a pathway in the capital and the image sparked widespread anger. The Homeless Street Cafe uploaded the image after a “busy night” helping homeless people in the capital.

No confidence vote in Harris

In late February, Health Minister Simon Harris survived a motion of no confidence by five votes.

A political year in review:  Politicians show they can still push people’s buttons in Dáil’s centenary year

After a tetchy and fiery debate, the attempt by Sinn Féin to oust him from office was defeated by 58 votes to 53. Fianna Fáil abstained under the confidence and supply arrangement.

Earlier, in a robust defence of his minister’s record, Leo Varadkar said Sinn Féin deputies are “trigger-happy” with their motions of no confidence. Mr Harris, in his own speech, launched a scathing attack on Sinn Féin for engaging the “politics of division”.

“Sinn Féin doesn’t change,” he said.

To the ballot box and the armalite, they have added the soap box and the no-confidence motion. Their stock in trade is still competitive anger and cultivated division.

"Devoid of ideas, their contribution to this Chamber can only be measured in decibels.”

Mr Harris promised to get to the bottom of the cost increases.

“Quitting is not in my DNA,” he said. “Political accountability is about standing by your decisions, and working day and night to deliver them.”

Humiliated by the Yanks in our own home

For months, it was all “will he come, won’t he come”. But when he finally did arrive, US president Donald Trump started his visit to Ireland in early June by comparing its post-Brexit border with Northern Ireland to the US border with Mexico, along which he wants to build a wall.

Mr Trump, sitting next to a visibly uncomfortable Taoiseach, waded into the Brexit debate minutes after Air Force One touched down at Shannon Airport.

A political year in review:  Politicians show they can still push people’s buttons in Dáil’s centenary year

“I think it will all work out very well, and also for you with your wall, your border,” he said at a joint press conference.

I mean, we have a border situation in the United States, and you have one over here. But I hear it’s going to work out very well here.

It didn’t get much better get when US vice-president Mike Pence arrived in early September. We criticised the “cheek” of Mr Pence following his remarks on Brexit, when he backed Boris Johnson over Ireland, when he stayed in Trump’s Doonbeg resort, and then clogged up Dublin Airport at rush hour by leaving early.

“How dare he? The cheek of him coming here, eating our food, clogging up our roads and then having the nerve to humiliate his hosts,” we wrote.

“In a highly curtailed and controlled media outing in Farmleigh where pesky reporters were barred from asking questions, Pence did the dirty and backed Johnson and not Ireland. Having hyped up his Irish roots and his previous times here, Pence made it clear it is for the EU and Ireland to bend the knee to Johnson if a hard Brexit is to be avoided.”

Shane Ross photobombs Katie Taylor

In June, Irish boxing sensation Katie Taylor received a hero’s welcome in Dublin Airport but it was Sports Minister Shane Ross’ shameless photobombing which stole all the headlines.

An instant internet viral sensation, members of the public and political opponents were quick to seize on the affair. Sinn Féin TD John Brady tweeted: “A massive well done and congratulations to Shane Ross who is the undisputed biggest chancer in the world.”

The Somme

Fine Gael seemed to have an unending series of troubles internally this year, and Waterford was no different.

Firstly, sitting TD John Deasy confirmed that he will not contest the next general election.

The government’s special envoy to the US Congress since 2017 made the announcement in August, having served in the Dáil since 2002.

A few weeks later, there was the motion of no confidence tabled by the local organisation in Mr Deasy. The motion was put forward by Eoin Coffey, a brother of his party colleague, constituency rival and senator Paudie Coffey.

Mr Deasy, in turn, called for the entire Fine Gael Waterford organisation to be stood down and called on party bosses to investigate.

He painted a picture of a constituency organisation at war with itself, saying his supporters had stopped going to meetings years ago.

The party added local councillors Damien Geoghegan and John Cummins to the ticket with Mr Coffey, only for the senator to stand down in December.

In a highly emotional interview on WLR radio, Mr Coffey explained that he had lost the passion for the job and wants to do other things. But his departure has only compounded the troubles for his party which had initially hoped of winning two seats here. Now, it will be doing well to win one.

Printer-gate

The country was aghast after it emerged that “significant” and costly structural works had to be carried out to fit a €808,000 state-of-the-art printer into the Houses of the Oireachtas offices in Leinster House.

Internal emails show that Oireachtas officials miscalculated the measurements required for the Komori printer to fit into either of the two printing rooms in the building on Kildare Street.

Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show the Oireachtas estimated the work required to accommodate the printer would cost €236,000.

This included tearing down walls and embedding structural steel in order to give it the height clearance it needs to operate.

The Dáil’s top official later said “a series of mistakes” were made in the €1.8m Oireachtas printing controversy, but said those mistakes were “human error”.

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