The summer had been almost as sunny for Fianna Fáil and the PDs as it had been for the rest of us. There had been no major storms other than the three-day blows that Bertie Ahern (with the wedding) and Martin Cullen (the smoking ban) got caught in.
So the Cabinet’s first meeting was going to be deeply, deeply uncontroversial. And when the agenda became known, it also became clear that it would be deeply, deeply uninteresting. The Cabinet would be discussing its approach to Ireland’s six-month presidency of the EU which begins in January. Yep, it is very worthy. But in terms of grabbing you by the scruff of the neck, it’s up there with Open University Applied Maths on the BBC circa 1974.
But Tuesday evening, all those positive vibes were shattered with the bombshell that Justice Mary Laffoy was resigning. For the media posse, only an announcement that Ireland was renouncing its membership of the EU would begin to compete with a sound-byte from the beleaguered Education Minister Noel Dempsey.
The practice of this Coalition has been to hold a couple of Cabinet meetings down the country each year. This time the funereal line of black Mercs arrived at Emo Court in County Laois, an imposing Gandon-designed pile a la CJ Haughey’s Abbeville. There to meet them was the usual mix of protesters (this time anti-incinerator groups dressed up in radiation suits and gas masks) and curious locals.
Because this is his fiefdom, it was Brian Cowen who had the honour of playing the squire’s role for the day, greeting his colleagues as they came up the steps of the sumptuous mansion, with its long vistas. However, all the bravura and glad-handing at the steps disguised the over-riding mood of the morning that all that chirpy ‘let’s-look-forward’ stuff about Europe would be swamped by Justice Laffoy’s abrupt departure. The Cabinet repaired to the dining room to discuss the crisis. The meeting dragged on. Just after two o’clock, three quarters of an hour after they were due to finish, there was the first sign of white smoke as Martin ‘two pack’ Cullen made a hurried walk to his ministerial car which promptly whooshed him away. The rest of the ministers discreetly glided away as Dempsey came over to swim with the sharks. In the circumstances, he gave a robust enough performance, seemed unruffled as he defended the Department’s role strongly, and insisted that he had discussed the second review with the High Court judge before announcing it.
Brian Cowen sauntered over to give a detailed briefing of Ireland’s agenda for the EU presidency. He was asked would there be a Treaty of Dublin. “Don’t know about that. A treaty of Emo perhaps.”
It was the only moment of lightness in what had turned out to be a difficult first day back for the government.