Campaign rhetoric dialled down in wake of Manchester bombing atrocity

One minute, you’re at your first-ever concert wearing kitten-ears, waving a pink balloon and singing your little heart out. The next, you’re screaming, your innocence shattered, your bones broken, your secure and happy world fallen apart.

One minute, and everything changes for everyone. Things which seemed so all-consuming and a metaphorical matter of life-and-death only a short while earlier, suddenly subside in the face of horrific all-too-real death scenes in Manchester.

The dark shadow of the murderous attack stretched the short distance across the Irish Sea and hung over the roof of Leinster House. 

There was a subdued atmosphere around the place, and the news from Manchester permeated the usual business of the day as well as (correctly), consigning the Fine Gael leadership contest to the sidelines.

As the dreadful story unfolded as the sun rose, the Taoiseach did an impromptu phone interview on Morning Ireland to denounce what he described as “an attack on innocence and on happiness”, highlighting the strong ties between the two cities and offering his Government’s support. 

In the normal course of events, if Enda had made one of his infrequent forays onto the airwaves, he would’ve been peppered with questions from one of the programme’s tenacious inquisitors about the Leo versus Simon saga. But then this wasn’t a normal day.

By mid-morning, a trio of Fianna Fáil TDs arrived out onto the plinth of Leinster House to speak to the media. It was a pre-arranged doorstep interview to give the party’s response to the EU Commission’s report on Ireland and the autumn Budget, but once again there was no appetite for fighting words.

Michael McGrath revealed he had been in Manchester only hours before the bombing. He had flown to a football match in the city with his young sons as a Holy Communion treat for them.

“I came back late last night and turned on the TV and learned what happened,” he said.

The sombre mood prevailed in the Dáil chamber throughout Leaders Questions. On a normal day, much of the focus would’ve been on the body language between the outgoing Taoiseach and the two wannabe-incoming ones, Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney.

After all, it was the first time Enda Kenny had taken questions since announcing his departure at the parliamentary party meeting a week ago. But this wasn’t a normal day.

It could have been a bit frosty if Enda had found himself cheek-by-scowl on the front-bench with his potential successors. But Leo sat quietly at a discreet distance of three seats away from his party leader and concentrated on his phone, while Simon steered clear of the chamber altogether.

It wasn’t the time for banter or troublemaking from the opposition benches, although Tipperary’s Mattie McGrath couldn’t resist a sly dig while having a voluble go at one member of Team Coveney, Health Minister Simon Harris. Mattie noted that Mr Harris was absent from Leaders Questions.

“He’s on the road, working hard, ag lorg vótáil,” he sniped and, across the floor, Leo couldn’t quite stifle a grin — either at the mangled Irish or at the wee puck at one of his rival’s main men.

But, given the day that was in it, both Leo and Simon dialled down the campaign rhetoric. They were (separately) nabbed by reporters en route to the morning’s Cabinet meeting, and the housing minister wasn’t in election mood.

“I just walked across Merrion Square in the peace and tranquillity of a beautiful sunny morning, listening to reports coming in of families trying to find young daughters who were at the concert last night. It’s shocking,” said Simon.

The social protection minister had his own words to say on the atrocity.

“First I want to add my name to the condemnation of the attack that occurred in Manchester last night, a city I know well and a city that I think many Irish people know well,” said Leo. 

“I also extend my sympathies to the families of those involved.”

Leo did venture into campaign territory, bringing up the possibility of some of his rival’s supporters switching horses in mid-race. But this was a political ding-dong for another day. 

In the immediate aftermath of Manchester, matters of life-and-death were exactly that.

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