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Thursday 30 November 2023 Dublin: 5°C
Leah Farrell/

Lise Hand After a long day, the prospect of an 'accidental' Green Taoiseach gave us 15 seconds of comedic drama

The vote for a new chieftan had none of the usual frisson of anxiety and anticipation, writes Lise Hand.

JUST BEFORE 7.40pm – almost eight long hours after the 33rd Dáil opened for business – 15 seconds of comedic drama unfolded in the chamber.

Voting for a taoiseach was in half-swing.

It had none of the usual frisson of anxiety and anticipation sparked by what is the biggest moment in any parliament.

As everybody inside and outside the building knew all too well since the electorate in its infinite wisdom delivered a nigh-on dead heat result, this was a three-hearse race between Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

Everybody was resigned to the fact that no new chieftain would be acclaimed by his or her tribe on the first day of this Dáil.

There would be no triumphant trip to the Áras to meet Michael D.

No theatrical procession back into the chamber with a row of freshly-appointed ministers beadily eyed by a cabal of disgruntled party colleagues who had waited in vain by their phones for an invitation onto the front benches.

Instead, the atmosphere inside the chamber was as flat as a dropped pancake. Four times, TDs trooped up and down the stairs to vote for their chosen candidate – Leo Varadkar, Micheál Martin, Mary Lou McDonald and Eamon Ryan, each ballot doomed to fall far short of the magic number of 80 votes and/or abstentions.

But the gods of irony decided to have some sport, and when the ceann comhairle declared the nomination of Eamon Ryan, the Green Party leader and definite back marker of the contest, there was a long pause before somebody in the chamber bestirred themselves to call for a vote.

But the way the palaver works is that if there is no call of “Votáil”, the candidate is deemed elected by acclamation.

For 15 seconds, as Ryan burst out laughing and gestured for ciúnas in the chamber, it looked as if Ireland was about to get its first Green Taoiseach, entirely by accident.

In the end, he garnered 12 votes.

Heaven knows that until that point there had been little enough drama since the division bells summoning the new cohort of 160 members to the Dáil had rung just before noon.

The first vote taken by the new assembly of TDs to elect a new ceann comhairle had been as suspenseful as the Angelus, as the outgoing incumbent, Fianna Fáil’s Seán Ó Fearghaíl, cantered past his rival Roscommon-Galway TD Denis Naughten by 130 votes to 28, ensuring that the new ceann comhairle is the same as the old ceann comhairle.

It was an odd day in Leinster House. Outside the chamber the place was abuzz with the usual first-day fever as newly-elected TDs and their families milled around on the plinth, along the corridors and in the public bar and restaurant. Pints were being consumed before the sun was anywhere close to the yardarm.

There were flashes of colourful carry-on – the newly-swollen ranks of 37 Sinn Féin TDs swept en masse from Buswell’s Hotel through the gates; Michael and Danny Healy Rae and various family members broke out the accordions and tin-whistles and self-congratulatory declarations on the perils of “writing off” the Kerry political dynasty.

But even the laughably self-proclaimed underdogs of the Dáil were outdone by the arrival of new Independent TD Richard O’Donoghue in a vintage 1959 Plymouth which he explained to wide-eyed admirers was not his own, but had been used by President John F Kennedy during his visit to Ireland in 1963.


Inside the chamber, however, the mood inexorably shifted from celebratory to sombre.

Everyone had accepted by now that the general election which had the theme of change at its core had in fact produced a stalemate.

But the first session’s proceedings served only to underline that the election impasse could not be easily or swiftly resolved, if at all.

At no point was this more clearly illustrated than by the fusillade of barbs exchanged between the leaders of Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin during the series of speeches by the candidates after the round of unsuccessful votes for taoiseach.

It was Micheál Martin who started it. He laid into Sinn Féin with a vengeance highlighting victims of republican violence.

“The fundamental issue is that we do not believe that Sinn Féin operates to the same democratic standards held to by every other party in this place,” said Martin.

“This is not simply about the past,” he added, “It is about practices which any party which shares government with Sinn Féin must accept as normal.

“Every single time an issue arises about the behaviour of people associated with the Provisional movement and today’s Sinn Féin, the response is to attack and dismiss,” he charged.

“No-one ever comes forward. Victims never get justice.”

Silence fell on the chamber as the bitter war of words erupted. This was an all-out attack and certainly not the sentiments of a leader minded to enter coalition talks with Sinn Féin.

Mary Lou McDonald was unfazed, and was scathing in her response to what she called “vitriol” and “bile” from Martin.

“Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have run the show for almost a century and by Christ
they’re not minded to let it go,” she replied.

“And that really is what it’s all about.”

And she put a swift personal boot into her critic.

“If Micheál Martin is concerned about the democratic practises within my party, I am deeply concerned by a party and by a leader who sat around the Cabinet table with people who were subsequently jailed for corruption.”

The tensions on all faces was evident to see. Such fighting talk might rev up the grassroots of their respective parties, but it didn’t bode well for any hopes that the commanders of the entrenched parties would be crawling from their bunkers to forge any new entente cordiale.

Eamon Ryan then attempted to de-escalate the tension in a thoughtful speech. “We need to dial it down,” he requested.

But the damage was already done.

It had been a long day – made longer by the fact that so many TDs insisted on having their say.

And assuming a 33rd Dáil actually gets up and running, long days and longer speeches seem likely, with new mini-coalitions rising like noisy soufflés in order to acquire speaking rights.

Even as proceedings were underway in the Dáil, another gang was formed. Calling itself the Regional Group – the sort of lofty-but-vague title of a new company looking for a grant from Enterprise Ireland – it includes luminaries such as Verona Murphy, Michael Lowry and Noel Grealish.

And what of Leo Varadkar?

Well, after the votes, he went to Áras an Uachtaráin and resigned as Taoiseach.

Then as caretaker Taoiseach he departed for the EU summit in Brussels.

He had a phone chat with Micheál Martin before he left, and the Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil leaders will meet next week for “exploratory talks”.

Plus ca change, and all that. Earlier in the day, as the glowing tributes to him on the occasion of his re-election finally came to an end, a flummoxed Seán Ó Fearghaíl quipped to the House, “I had to pinch myself at one stage to make sure I wasn’t dead.”

We all had to pinch ourselves, Ceann Comhairle, every last one of us. New politics is dead, long live new politics.

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