Some of the more veteran deputies were looking bewildered. What in the name of God was going on?
One minute, leaders’ questions was proceeding nicely. In fact, it was tipping along even better than usual. It was more like old times, before all this fancy-dan confidence-and-supply sleeping-with-the-enemy farrago, with the respective leaders of the Blueshirts and Soldiers of Destiny taking right skelps off one another.
But then matters took a most peculiar turn. It was the Greens’ Eamon Ryan who started it. He launched into a tale of how he had bumped into the Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe recently in Stephen’s Green, and the pair had stopped to chat. As you do.
“We talked about social partnership, capital plans and, inevitably and briefly, any books we would recommend to each other,” he explained to a bemused chamber. And there we all were, thinking that ministers just gossiped about normal stuff like the weather, the GAA and who’s knifing who in the corridors.
Nor did they laud the merits of the latest Marian Keyes book, like ordinary decent souls would. “I recommended to him The Myth Gap by Alex Evans, and he blessedly recommended to me a short book he had just read, On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder.
“It has a thesis about politics having gone from a politics of inevitability, as he calls it, whereby there was an inevitable sense of the end of history and that it is just a question of inevitable progress towards liberal democracy, to a political system, which we see here, whereby one party defends the status quo and the other side just consists of negation,” said Earnest Eamon. “He characterises this as the seduction…” Ohh. A bit of 50 Shades coming up, thought everyone, fanning themselves. (It was the heat). Alas….“of a mythical past that prevents us from thinking about possible futures,” he continued.
Leo, competitive in all things, was eager to inform Eamon that despite his relative youth he doesn’t just read Marvel comics and biographies of Maggie Thatcher. “I’m delighted Minister Donohoe is making the same book recommendations to you as he makes to me. He gave me On Tyranny for my 38th birthday. I have read it, and it’s a good read,” he replied, before returning the favour by suggesting Eamon read another of Paschal’s Picks, Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance.
Brendan Howlin was feeling a bit left out of all the book talk, and seized on the title On Tyranny. “Is Paschal trying to tell you something, Taoiseach?” he sniped.
Leo released a zinger in the direction of the Labour leader. “I know for many members in your party, the world stopped at some stage in the 1980s and you haven’t read any political philosophy since then...” he countered.
Behind him, backbenchers unleashed a bit of noisy approval. After all, there had been a woeful absence of zingers from the Taoiseach’s seat in recent years.
A giddy Patrick O’Donovan, hoping perhaps to curry favour with his new boss Paschal, had a question. “How does one join this book club?” he enquired.
The Taoiseach was on a bit of a roll by this stage. “Perhaps after pilates, we can have book club as well,” he suggested airily.
Good Lord, pilates, book clubs… Whatever next?
The bookish banter was in stark contrast with the fractious exchanges earlier between the Taoiseach and Micheál Martin over the appointment of former attorney general Máire Whelan to the Court of Appeal.
“Do you accept that you essentially ignored all of the opposition’s concerns about this appointment and rammed it through on Sunday evening to avoid accountability to the House?” demanded the Fianna Fáil leader, before adding that he had made his concerns about the manner of the appointment known to the Taoiseach in a phonecall on Sunday evening.
Leo rose and acknowledged that Micheál was correct — he had expressed his concerns during that phonecall. “You did say to me in your call to me on Sunday night that you were questioning the qualifications, capabilities and competence of Máire Whelan,” he claimed. “[Deputy Martin] said he would not go there publicly”.
“That’s not true,” shouted a stung Micheál.
It was a far more heated exchange between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil than any other in recent times. The confidence bit of the arrangement may become a bit dented in Dáil days to come.
But by Taoiseach’s questions, we were all back on the culture trail. Ruth Coppinger was asking Leo about his trip to meet Theresa May earlier in the week. “You seemed a bit star struck in Downing St. You quoted one of the worst films ever made,” she reckoned. “Not even Hugh Grant would say it was his finest hour”.
Leo shrugged. Everyone’s a critic. “Knowing you for as long as I do, I would never put you down as a romantic,” he informed his Dublin West constituency rival. “I suppose everyone should be relieved that I spoke about Love Actually and not Notting Hill,” he mused.
“The romantic poets are my favourite,” added Ruth.
Golly. What’s going on at all? To borrow another movie quote, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore….”