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Social distancing and lessons from Matt Damon: An unconventional sitting of the 33rd Dáil

The end of Civil War politics? We’ll wait and see. Here’s how the day went down.

Micheal Martin photographed travelling to Government Buildings in a car while wearing a face mask.
Micheal Martin photographed travelling to Government Buildings in a car while wearing a face mask.
Image: Sam Boal

AFTER NEARLY FIVE months, the country has a new Taoiseach and a brand new Cabinet – albeit with a few familiar faces. 

The day a new Taoiseach is elected is traditionally full of pomp and ceremony – but yesterday, as Ireland continues to deal with the restrictions imposed by Covid-19, things were a little different…

Offsite campus

Leinster House would usually be heaving with people on a day like yesterday – with a buzz around the corridors of power.

Politicians would be dressed in their best outfits. Family members of those expected to get the nod for Cabinet would fill the public gallery, and the place would be thronged with reporters. 

The scene was a little different yesterday morning. Due to the public health emergency, the Dáil had to sit across the Liffey in the Convention Centre.

With an initial fit out of over €100,000, so each TD could have a mic, and at a cost of €50,000 per day – this vast centre became the setting for a historical moment in Irish politics.

“The end to Civil War politics”, as Leo Varadkar put it, with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil going into government together alongside the Greens.

A day that usually has a bit of electricity about it, turned out to be a bit of a damp squib.

Perhaps due to the location and the huge building, there was little sense of excitement about a new government being formed.

Of course – given the context – none of that made the day any less memorable. 

The time it took Coveney to say

If there was a moment that could sum up the surreal experience of hearing Fine Gael politicians voting for a Fianna Fáil leader to become the Taoiseach, it was when Simon Coveney uttered ‘tá’.

The Cork South Central TD is Martin’s constituency rival, yet now he finds himself in government with him.

Coming from a strong Fine Gael family, the time it took Coveney to say the word almost seemed like an eternity – as a roll-call vote for Taoiseach took place. 

The syllable seemed to stick in his throat. 

He wasn’t the only Fine Gaeler who appeared to have trouble getting the word out.

One by one they all had to say yes to Micheál Martin becoming Taoiseach – even Leo Varadkar, effectively ousting himself from his own job.

Each said the word, almost like a whisper – a sad, solitary, ‘tá’.

Alan Kelly’s movie memories 

There were some light-hearted moments dotted throughout the day.

Labour leader Alan Kelly brought up some of the things both Martin and Varadkar have said about each other over the years.

Some classic movies got a mention.

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“We all know the outgoing Taoiseach loves his films. In the 2016 general election, Deputy Leo Varadkar said that Deputy Micheál Martin was a good debater and an even better deceiver, that he could not be trusted and that his record as a Minister was a disaster.  

“Sorry for pointing that out,” said Kelly to a grinning Varadkar. 

“The then Minister for Health compared the Fianna Fáil leader with Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall – with alternative memories planted in his brain – and created a fairytale about his record in the Departments of Health and Foreign Affairs.  

“Here we are four years later and it would seem that the outgoing Taoiseach has had his memory absolutely wiped in the pursuit of office, and has constructed his own fairytale today.

“I believe he must have taken some tips from Matt Damon when he was here during the lockdown as Leo, our current Taoiseach, has woken up, akin to Jason Bourne, with no actual memory of what he said about Fianna Fáil or Deputy Micheál Martin four years ago, or indeed numerous times over the last ten years.”

The Healy-Rae Party

“Even though we started out on the same path I cannot support Deputy Martin today, because I believe our party, the Healy-Rae party, has remained close to the people who elect and who voted for us,” Kerry’s Danny Healy-Rae said ahead of the Taoiseach vote.  

“Fianna Fáil has distanced itself from the people of rural Ireland and that was seen again in the programme of government.”

As noted by the Ceann Comhairle yesterday – not only did we get a new government, but we also got a new political party. 

The Healy-Rae party is not a registered political party.

Yet.

Micheál Martin gets emotional

Whether you’re a fan or not, it can’t be denied that Martin has waited a long time to become Taoiseach.

It was evident during his speech when he became visibly emotional when speaking about his family.

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Social distancing 

Social distancing meant Martin could not shake the hand of President Michael D Higgins when accepting his seal of office.

At the convention centre, TDs had to sit two metres apart and there were yellow spots on the floor indicating where people should stand.

There was also social distancing in the canteen.

The promotions and the snubs

There was some good news in the Cabinet announcement for Fianna Fáilers – Darragh O’Brien got Housing, Stephen Donnelly Health, Norma Foley is the new Minister for Education, Barry Cowen heads up Agriculture and the Marine and Michael McGrath takes on Public Expenditure. 

As for the Greens – Eamon Ryan, Catherine Martin and Roderic O’Gorman also get significant briefs.

There were big disappointments for some veteran Fine Gaelers, such as Richard Bruton, who lobbied hard to keep his seat at the Cabinet table.

Charlie Flanagan also loses out, with his Justice brief going to Helen McEntee.

There were also some perceived snubs in Fianna Fáil with many asking why deputy leader Dara Calleary ended up as Chief Whip and not Justice Minister.

Rural TDs were not happy

Independent TD Michael Fitzmaurice voiced his disappointment – as did many other rural TDs -  that a number of counties are not represented at the Cabinet table.

He held up a map with sections of the country highlighted to demonstrate his point…

 Reaction to the ‘whatever you’re having’ ministry 

The Green Party deputy leader Catherine Martin now has a ministry entitled: Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht. 

Twitter was quick to point out that it is quite the mouthful.

Independent Mattie McGrath said Catherine Martin is now the Minister for Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht “and sure whatever you’re having yourself when the pubs open on Monday”.

Just some of the notable moments from yesterday, no doubt there will be plenty more to come with this Dáil.

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