Saturday 20 January 2018

Minister caught between a Roquefort and a hard place

AGRIculture Minister Brendan Smith, we Port Salut you. At the end of a bonkers week, which featured a paint-spattered Health Minister, the shock resignation of Fianna Fail TD Jim McDaid, a judicial rocket from the High Court which in turn sparked a by-election to be called, the announcement of a horrendous €6bn Budget and a mini-outbreak of heave-fever against the Taoiseach, it was well-nigh impossible to see how anyone could trump all that insanity.

And then up Brendan popped just before 8.30am on 'Morning Ireland', bright-eyed and feta as a fiddle, eager to impart an oh-so rare slice of good tidings to the nation.

But first he had to sing for his supper, and presenter Aine Lawlor, ahem, grilled him on the four-year budget plan, which is set to unleash savage cuts and punitive taxes on a reeling nation until the middle of the decade.

He picked his way through that minefield and no doubt the government spin doctors wiped their collective brow that a minister who is prone to bouts of foot-in-mouth disease stuck dutifully to the official script.

Finally, Aine remembered to ask him about the free cheese, and off he went, audibly Boursin with pride about his cheesy coup.

"Following discussions with the EU Commission we will have available from the 15th of this month cheese to be made available to voluntary organisations to assist people who are living in poor circumstances and who are under pressure," he cheerfully explained.

"Not alone will it benefit people from the point of view of providing good food, but it also promotes the use and the value and the importance and the nutrition of dairy products," he added delightedly.

"Right, eh, who will be distributing this cheese?" asked a clearly bemused presenter, only to be informed that the cartloads of cheddar would be distributed to voluntary organisations and the like. All in a Gouda cause, of course.

And Minister Mozzarella dismissed Aine's suggestion that the image of cheese parcels instantly conjured up bad images of the 1980s when the recession-hit populace were given butter vouchers and tinned meat.

"I'm just trying to get a picture here," she muttered.

But a cheesed-off nation got the picture all right. With the big wheels of the IMF and ECB all Caerphilly watching to see if the Paddies have got a collective grip and are intent on tackling the mountain of debt in a serious fashion, here's a minister handing out chunks of Cheddar like Cavan's own Marie Antoinette.

Now Brendan was caught between a Roquefort and a hard place.

He had meant well, of course, and thought that this beneficence would buck up the dispirited electorate. Also, this EU free cheese scheme isn't new, but is rolled out every year.

Within hours, radio station phone lines, the internet and Twitter went into overdrive with Gruyere gags and Parmesan punch-lines. There were political puns about the new government policy of 'quantitative cheesing', the axing of the 'Easi Single Parents Allowance' and Fianna Fail's new slogan, 'A Lot Done, More Fondue'.

There was a cornucopia of the usual fare of cheese and whine on Joe Duffy. One online philosopher reckoned, "I suppose if your economy is toast you might as well have cheese on it".

Suddenly it was cheese topping every chatter chart. What would the Big Cheese himself, Taoiseach Brian Cowen, have to say on the matter when he arrived at the National Convention Centre at lunchtime yesterday?

In fairness, the Taoiseach has a lot on his (cheese) plate at the present -- not least the spectre that the men from the IMF will end up pulling the country's (cheese) strings unless his Government gets the next Budget right.

The Taoiseach seemed to run a mile from the issue. "I understand that's an EU initiative. You can take it up with Minister Smith," he replied hurriedly.

But then, it transpires that perhaps the Taoiseach was unaware that his Agriculture Minister had just landed his Government into yet another fine public relations mess. One week it's Farmleigh limousines, the next it's Limousin cheese.

A bamboozled Brian then turned to his press secretary. "The cheese thing -- what was all that about?" he asked him. Sometimes you just have to laugh. Altogether for the world's cameras now, folks. That's right, say cheese.

Irish Independent

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