Two Tánaistes on very different wavelengths

WHERE the mountains of Mourne sweep down to the sea sits the mock gothic splendour of the Slieve Donard Hotel – the setting for Daniel Craig and Toni Collette’s adventure into repressed sexual longing in the film Hotel Splendide – and yesterday home to the rather less exciting British-Irish parliamentary forum.

But it was here – as the torrid waves smashed against the rocks beneath a sky bursting with rage and menace that Nick met Mary: A touching tale of two Tánaistes on two very different trajectories. Nick Clegg – a political joke who became a player, Mary Coughlan – a player who became a political joke.

Nick’s learned a lot since his early blooding when he foolishly revealed the number of his sexual conquests to a noisy interviewer.

It was a mistake on three levels: the number wasn’t all that spectacular – 30 – it made him a laughing stock – a “leg over” instantly became a “Clegg-over” in Westminster slang, and – ignominy of ignominies – the journalist who caught him out was the dreadful Piers Morgan (if Britain’s Got Talent, then why’s Morgan fronting the show?)

Anyway, it seemed game over for the little Lib Dem who couldn’t cut it with the big boys, but then the introduction of TV debates into the British election turned him into a star and the phenomena of Clegg-mania was born.

Meanwhile, heading in the other direction was Ms Coughlan, first seen as a capable agriculture minister, then she got wildly over-promoted to Tánaiste and all the things people previously liked about her – affability, being down to earth – suddenly became a liability. She was viewed as lacking the role’s required gravitas and command.

This in turn made her terrified to put a foot wrong because when she does veer even slightly off her usual auto-pilot android mode her foot usually ends up firmly in her mouth.

Hence Coughlan delivers the same blander than bland speech where ever she goes, whatever the occasion: “blah, blah jobs, blah blah going forward, blah blah smart economy...” without ever actually saying anything or being remembered by anyone.

And so it was in the Hotel Splendide – despite the fact that security surrounding the venue was tighter than Brian Lenihan taking all that money off pensioners and disabled children to give to Fianna Fáil’s buddies in Anglo Irish – not one word was uttered by the Tánaiste about the brooding threat from Republican dissidents to tip the North back into violence.

Fears of an imminent Real IRA “spectacular” where so pronounced the Irish Examiner had its boot and bonnet searched and only narrowly avoided a full frisking – it was like an episode of Reeling In The Years, but without the inappropriately jaunty background track by Desmond Decker and the Aces.

Yet it never occurred to Ms Coughlan to issue a Dublin government warning to the dissidents, or even allude to the dangers of a slide back towards chaos. Thankfully, Nick did seem to be inhabiting the real world and spoke eloquently of the threat and why it needed to be met head-on. Ms Coughlan just sat there nodding and said nothing.

Then both deputy premiers went on their merry ways and the British-Irish Parliamentary Forum got down to its taxpayer funded business – having talks about what kind of talks it should be having.

And just when it seemed the whole enterprise could not get any more pointless – Enda Kenny turned-up. Oh dear.

Enda’s been a bit out of sorts lately, some have wondered if his heart’s still in it. He’s even taken to winking at journalists in the press gallery during Leader’s Questions (no, seriously, its quite scary), but he seemed to be savouring Hotel Splendide. He gave a drive-by briefing to reporters and spoke with clarity, focus and authority – begging the question: why does he find it impossible to do that on TV?

Unless he works that one out he may well join Nick and Mary, forever stuck in the second rank league – a Tánaiste to Eamon Gilmore’s Taoiseach.

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Commemorating 100 years since the War of Independence