Fine Gael beaten to the benches as committee meets for first time on Eighth Amendment

With handmaids protesting outside, the budget and abortion dominated on day one, writes Political Editor Daniel McConnell.

Rosa campaigners dressed as handmaids included Louisa Ní Eideain with her son Tadhg, seven months, at Leinster House.

‘AH JAYSUS, we’re back,” came the caustic quip from a Government minister as he gazed out the main door of Leinster House.

Silly season normally refers to the period during the summer when newspapers and media have to do without the Dáil and the courts to occupy our attention.

The wails of bagpipes and the sight of a dozen or so women dressed as handmaids outside the Kildare St gates gave one cause to stop and think silly season was in full swing.

The abortion protests, pro and against, coincided with the first public meeting of the new joint committee on the Eighth Amendment.

The committee has until Christmas to finalise its work. Led by Fine Gael senator Catherine Noone, few are holding out hope of a consensus report among its 22 members.

Noone laughed off suggestions of a slew of minority reports being produced by committee members before it all comes to an end.

The committee heard from Ms Justice Mary Laffoy, who heads the Provisional Citizen’s Assembly, which deliberated on the Eighth Amendment in recent months.

Sitting before a packed public gallery, which is not the norm, Justice Laffoy warned politicians any changes to the Eighth Amendment risk facing an immediate High Court challenge unless they are based on standalone new laws instead of only altering the constitution.

Justice Laffoy rejected claims some of those who took part in the assembly were “misled” in favour of a “liberal” response to the issue.

One of those who was less than pleased was the conservative Independent TD Mattie McGrath, who said a minority report was a distinct possibility.

He had real cause for celebration as his daughter Triona had given birth to his third grandchild in Clonmel Hospital the night before. The girl, yet to be named, was said to be in good health and grandfather Mattie proudly displayed pictures.

Back in the Dáil, all eyes were on the first Leaders’ Questions. In keeping with last term, there were 18 Fianna Fáil TDs in the chamber ten minutes before the session commenced, with just Noel Rock of Fine Gael on the Government benches.

Brian Lenihan Jr, I mean Jack Chambers of Dublin West, was best boy in class and bagged the prized seat next to Micheál Martin, meaning he would be in shot on the Six One News.

“20-1, this is like Man City v Liverpool,” Rock exclaimed before Independent Alliance minister Kevin Boxer Moran came to his rescue, followed shortly by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who looked a bit bemused to see so many empty seats.

Martin failed to land a blow on Varadkar in a flat performance, with Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams managing to surpass him in the boredom stakes.

Things livened up somewhat when Labour leader Brendan Howlin managed to needle the Taoiseach on his promise to cut taxes, in some very tetchy exchanges. Howlin cried foul calling on the Taoiseach to put the money into better services only for Varadkar to accuse Howlin of engaging in a “phoney war”.

“It is always a sign that one is on weak ground when one has to misrepresent somebody’s position to make an argument... I didn’t twist your words, Deputy Howlin, you twisted mine,” snapped Leo the Lion.

But behind the scenes, the real work has begun.

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe held his bilateral meeting with Fianna Fáil’s Michael McGrath on the budget, but it is said that no real numbers were discussed and the two engaged in shadow boxing.

Donohoe also met with his Independent Alliance colleagues last night — he has to ensure a few goodies to keep the junior partners happy. Good luck to him on that one.

Meanwhile, one has to feel sorry for poor Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy.

He arrived into the canteen to get a bite to eat only to be bombarded by party colleagues and journalists, even as he tried to inhale his dinner. He scarpered back to the sanctuary of his office.

By contrast, former finance minister Michael Noonan was spotted enjoying a quiet cup of tea in the Dáil bar. A few short months ago, Noonan would have found himself like Murphy, thronged by those seeking an audience, but now he made do with the company of his loyal adviser Mary Kenny.

Yesterday’s man, no longer in demand.

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