Reflection season is in full swing now with political parties displaying united fronts in hotels and boardrooms across the country. But general bonhomie can be a constraint for politicians, so media exposure is carefully controlled.
Round up some heavy hitters for a few short question and answer sessions, then retreat behind closed doors for the duration. That’s all you can expect from these boring and very scenic events.
Fine Gael met in Kilkenny on Friday and couldn’t even reveal details of their schedule. The traditional evening of the first evening has been abandoned.
Instead, the politicians and their advisers decamped to a nearby hotel for their dinner while the journalists were invited to dine separately on the spot. Fraternizing with hacks is now forbidden in windy Fine Gael, it seems.
All very top to bottom.
And how coincidental they were to be accommodated in the King’s Banqueting Suite on the very first day of King Charles lll’s reign. Or Turd’s King Char-les, as many in this country may innocently say – an unfortunate turn for Anglo-Irish relations.
Best of all, however, was the confusion over how long this reflection lasted.
Was it a one day or two day event? It seemed strange that attempts had been made to hijack the government party’s second day press kit at the Ormonde Hotel, which was enthusiastically sold as a small gig for mere county councilors and the like. Certainly not of much interest to political correspondents, although the Tánaiste, his ministers, TDs, senators and deputies cling to it.
One can never be too sure what a disgruntled local representative might say to a passing microphone or how many national names might feel the need to stand in front of constituency acolytes.
With Queen Elizabeth dying rather untimely the day before Fine Gael’s first big set piece of the new Dáil season, the question of succession was a hot issue in Kilkenny. Nothing to do with the sad event at Balmoral and with the question of who will get which cabinet post when Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin hands over the crown of taoiseach to Leo Varadkar in December.
Foreign Secretary Simon Coveney, joined by Social Care Minister Heather Humphreys and Higher Education Minister Simon Harris for the second and final media door of the day, was ready to discuss important issues related to his wallet. Notably, having another new secretary for Northern Ireland landed on him.
“I’m sure I’ll get on well with him,” Coveney said palely when asked about the latest arrival, ardent Brexiter and self-proclaimed “fierce Eurosceptic” Chris Heaton-Harris.
But for the most part he was beset with questions about his own future after Micheál abdicated in favor of Leo.
A suitable Cabinet post will have to be found for the outgoing Taoiseach and it has been said he would not be bothered by a short stint at Iveagh House. Would Simon give up a job he so clearly loves to help an incoming tánaiste?
Judging by his carefully polite response, his boss Varadkar will have to blast him through the door first.
And then there is this other controversial question: “Where is Pascal going?”
The supporters of the Minister of Finance (who was not on reflection because he was in Europe wearing his hat as President of the Eurogroup of Ministers of Finance) insisted forcefully on the fact that it would be unwise to displace Paschal Donohoe from his role as moneybags in Merrion Street because Ireland would lose the prestigious Eurogroup presidency.
Heather, sandwiched between the two Simons, agreed with her fellow ministers that Paschal is a great finance minister. But none of them wanted to pressure Fianna Fáil in any way to keep Michael McGrath in the Public Expenditure Department for the greater glory of Ireland and Paschal Donohoe. Oh no.
Maybe they can do some kind of twist on the old Cold War practice of exchanging hostages on neutral ground. McGrath to stay put in exchange for Coveney handing over his job to Micheál Martin at midnight in the middle of Shakey Bridge in Cork. And then Paschal to have the choice between the rest or a big job in Brussels.
The party took over the Sinn Féin practice of wearing lapel badges. All ministers and TDs authorized in front of the cameras wore small “Michael Collins 22” buttons. John Paul Phelan, the local TD who welcomed his colleagues to the Marble City and was thus granted the right to join Tánaiste Varadkar’s golden donut, Justice Minister Helen McEntee and party chairman Richard Bruton (right after having celebrated his 40th birthday in the Dáil at a party at Clontarf Castle earlier this week) pinned his Collins badge to his tie.
In this first officially sanctioned exchange with the media, the Tánaiste took every opportunity to plug in his favorite new phrase, one that was clearly sent to all party members with instructions to use as much as possible. People should be aware, he stressed, that it would be foolish and dangerous to give in to opposition demands for a spending spree in the next budget. Sinn Féin want the government to ’empty the tank’ now, but with an uncertain economic future in prospect, long-term planning is ‘making sure we keep something in the tank’.
In fact, if they took Sinn Féin’s approach to the economy, not only would the tank be empty, but they would “destroy the economy and cut the pie for everyone”.
That’s why this reflection was so important, he said. “It’s really going to be about helping people with the cost of living, making sure people have money in their pockets.”
Helen couldn’t agree more. “It’s an important gathering.” Richard Bruton agreed. “This is a very important fixture for Fine Gael.”
Beware of Sinn Féin, repeated Varadkar. “What they’re really saying is ’empty the tank’ and that’s a really bad strategy. I know from other crises we’ve had to cross the country that you have to leave something in the tank. .
And when Mary Lou and her pals aren’t siphoning off national diesel, they’re devouring national cake.
Not to be confused with the “nice Madeira” served after lunch to politicians after having dined apart at the hotel restaurant.
The queen was only mentioned once, and the Tánaiste was delighted to speak of her great devotion to duty. She had a very demanding and difficult job that was not as wonderful as one might have imagined.
“People grew up wanting to be a prince or a princess,” but the reality was different, he told himself. Did he grow up dreaming of little Prince Leo?
“No, I grew up wanting to be a taoiseach,” he replied.
Bertie Ahern too. He wrote an essay about it in elementary school.
Former Minister Micheal Ring was conspicuous by his absence. Some suspected he was keeping his powder dry until the next parliamentary party meeting as the Mayo TD is not a big fan of the way the party is run from Dublin at the moment. Also missing was former minister Charlie Flanagan, who was at a conference in Poland and probably not too upset that he missed the Kilkenny rally.
When Heather and the two Simons were ordered to have their mid-afternoon press briefing outside in the yard, Heather thought he should go back undercover because it was starting to rain.
“Oh, I think you’ll be fine,” Simon Coveney whispered.
“It’s ok for you” said the Minister of Social Protection and Protection of new brushings, “You have no hair to get wet!”
A group of fifth year students from nearby St Kieran’s College have gathered in the hope of getting selfies with political luminaries. Arron Russell, Finn Drennan, Harry Lanigan and Andy O’Connor also brought hurleys and sliotars. The Simons and Heather posed with them and Simon Harris explained the “BeReal” phenomenon which allows young people to take photos with well-known people to share on the app.
The doorstep was disrupted by a protest march by local council workers protesting changes to their working conditions. “Irish Water: Out! Out! Out!” they chanted, confusing the ministers with a blast from the past as they rushed! In! In!
Isn’t it great to be back?