FERGUS FINLAY: Hot air and kites fill summer sky as politicos prepare ground assaults

Independent TD Michael Healy-Rae asked more than 100 questions of the Minister for Health in the Dáil.

You can expect a raft of of articles on how dreadful it is that ministers need advisors to do their jobs, writes Fergus Finlay

You know you’ve reached the silly season when the Sunday Independent carries a major story — and pushes it in the radio advertising for the paper – about George Hook’s sexuality.

The actual piece, which revealed (among other things) that George occasionally favoured the wearing of ladies’ underwear, was far more than any of us really needed to know.

And you know the season is really beginning to get under way when two of our national dailies feature front-page stories starring the masters of promotion in Irish politics.

Michael Healy-Rae, one of our national newspapers informs us, put down 115 parliamentary questions in one day to the Minister for Health — most of them relating to hospital appointments for his constituents.

A sobbing Mr Healy-Rae told the paper that he and three of his parliamentary staff were at their desks until 3am one night last week dealing with the flood of requests for help. (Well, perhaps he wasn’t quite sobbing, but I imagine his cup overflowed with emotion when he saw that he had captured the front page of the Irish Times.)

Of course, there is a real risk that a story like that might get legs.

We might even see pious editorials giving out about the waste of money involved in dealing with so many parliamentary questions — especially as they were all answered in exactly the same way, as the experienced Mr Healy-Rae would know in advance they would be.

Around a hundred times, he got this answer: “Blah blah blah… Section 6 of the HSE Governance Act 2013 bars the Minister for Health from directing the HSE to provide a treatment or a personal service to any individual or to confer eligibility on any individual. … yadda yadda yadda … In relation to the particular query raised, as this is a service matter, I have asked the HSE to respond to you directly.

"If you have not received a reply from the HSE within 15 working days please contact my private office and my officials will follow the matter up.”

Was Mr Healy-Rae frustrated by all this gobbledegook? You’d think. But all the signs are that he scored a direct silly-season hit — front page coverage, the possibility of pious follow-up, perhaps even a radio interview or two inquiring about the waste of taxpayers’ money.

Will he be apologetic about this scandalous waste? Eh, no, probably not. He’ll take every opportunity instead to point out how hard done by the people of Kerry are, and how hard he works on their behalf. And why wouldn’t he?

Mind you, he wasn’t alone (although he was the only one who managed to make it to the front pages of the Irish Times). On the last day the Dáil sat before the summer holidays, a total of 920 written answers were given to parliamentary questions.

There was endless fodder in them for silly season commentary — minister’s travelling expenses, ministerial advisers (numbers, salaries, how many breached the pay cap, board appointments, all that good stuff).

You can expect a raft of articles based on all the published material about how dreadful it all is that ministers need personal advice to be the best at their job that they can be.

Hot air and kites fill summer sky as politicos prepare ground assaults

And then of course there’s the other big beast of the silly season. Leo Varadkar plaintively pointed out last week that every time he moves (he put it a little less delicately) it’s seen as a move on the party leadership, when all he really wants to talk about is policy in his own area.

One could, however, be forgiven for thinking that he is flying a kite in several of yesterday’s papers, including this one, when an idea emerged for a sliding scale of unemployment benefit — the more PRSI you pay, the higher your payment will be if you lose your job.

The minister told the Irish Examiner that he had costed this idea at between €34m and €35m.

That was confirmation that, first of all, it is a serious proposal, and that, secondly, in the overall scheme of things it’s a pretty cheap one.

That’s how ministers get traction for ideas. Before anyone can say a word, you plant the thought that it’s modest and affordable.

Then all the debate focuses on the practicality of the suggestion, and of course on whether it’s fair or not.

While many will argue that the minister’s priority ought to be about long-term unemployment, or the difficulties faced by thousands of young people on greatly reduced levels of support since austerity began, there is no doubt that there is a certain equity in the minister’s proposal.

When you add to that the thought that it is both modest and implementable — and that it has a special appeal to a certain cohort of likely Fine Gael voters — it adds a certain further lustre to a minister who has no interest in leadership and is only interested in policy.

Whether it ends up in the budget in October might well depend, of course, on whether other people see merit in adding more shine to Leo’s reputation.

The debate about the Fine Gael leadership began, of course, before the silly season, but you need have little doubt that, when we have nothing else to write about, commentators of all sorts will see it as the story that keeps on giving. And not to be outdone, Micheál Martin has planted a newish thought.

Hot air and kites fill summer sky as politicos prepare ground assaults

In an interview with the Irish Examiner, he waxed eloquent about how good the 92-94 Fianna Fáil-Labour government was, and how many people regretted the way it broke up. Great, it was, on the arts, and all that equality legislation.

Now, of course, he wasn’t committing to anything for the future — his party is, after all, still determined to support the present Government through its three budgets — but still … So another kite rises elegantly into the sky.

The gentle breezes of August ought to see it billowing gently, with one writer after another gazing up at it and conjuring many a learned article from it.

I have to admit that, whatever my feelings about the future, Mr Martin’s reflections on a possible coalition with Labour reminded me of a silly season worth forgetting.

The summer of 1994 was supposed to be quiet, but at the end of July that year, a major crisis developed with the publication of the Beef Tribunal report. That was followed in pretty short order by the first IRA ceasefire.

Without rehashing either event, what was politically remarkable about them was that the first almost caused the collapse of that Fianna Fáil-Labour coalition, and the second ensured it had to continue, despite a legacy of distrust that led to its eventual collapse.

Hopefully nothing quite so turbulent will happen in this silly season to disturb the tranquillity of politics. After all they have been through, our leaders no doubt deserve a couple of weeks of peace and quiet. But they should never take the silly season entirely for granted.

It was Edna O’Brien, after all, who reminded us that August is a wicked month.


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