Opinion Analysis

Friday 15 November 2019

Amid the drinking and swearing, trouble was brewing

There was a delirious air in the Dail Bar last Wednesday night, which put the old-hand veteran politicians on high alert, write John Drennan and Daniel McConnell

MISHAP: Labour's Michael McNamara pressed wrong button
MISHAP: Labour's Michael McNamara pressed wrong button

Last Wednesday night, Leinster House was heaving a long time before Tom Barry swung his arm around Aine Collins and dragged her on to his lap.

It was just after 11pm, and a sort of collective giddiness was in the air in the Dail Bar, which was busy like Wednesday nights of old. Ministers, TDs, advisers, supporters and journalists mingled and drank while the important abortion legislation went on being discussed in the chamber.

Ruairi Quinn mixed with Labour backbenchers close to the bar, Joan Burton chatted with journalists and party advisers and Alan Shatter moved through the room in his bright summer suit, wearing a broad smile.

As the crisp notes passed over the bartop with sharp regularity, pints, bottles and shorts came back to be enjoyed by the assembled punters.

The place was swinging. A combination of excessive heat, exhaustion from late-night sittings, tension and pre-summer break delirium meant old-hand TDs were drinking in moderation, if at all, and were on high alert for trouble.

One veteran politician said he saw a "recipe for trouble". There was, he says, among visitors, "drunkenness and swearing, a delirious air. The visitors' bar was swarming with pro-lifers and pro-choicers who had been invited in by TDs. It had a bit off a look of Fianna Fail's Galway tent about it."

The role of drink in Irish politics has occupied centre stage since the latter Fianna Fail years. We can recall the normal Wednesday evening madness that would grip the Dail Bar then, even though the country was in total economic and financial meltdown.

More recently, it played a prominent role in the chaos of the long night of the Anglo liquidation back in February, when Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams called on the Ceann Comhairle to have the Dail Bar closed.

Such was the revelry and the excess last Wednesday night that the Visitors' Bar, which normally keeps similar hours to the conventional pub trade, was not cleared of merry-makers until 2am.

Indeed, contrasting reports have come out about what Oireachtas members got up to in their own private bar, where they are not allowed to mingle with visitors.

One source claimed: "Even at 5am everything was still going strong."

Others said the mood was somewhat calmer in the members' side of the Dail Bar. The Sunday Independent was told that "the Cabinet was in a relaxed mood, sitting in low soft recliner chairs. Noonan, Phil, Shatter were all there in fine form".

Another source said: "Shatter was in and out of the chamber in his Man from Del Monte suit. It's rare to see him there."

Intriguingly, the normally sociable Taoiseach was "conspicuous by his absence – he just went into the Dail chamber for each vote and then flitted back up a dark corridor".

The heat and the exhaustion were relieved slightly by the sight of Ireland's sexiest politician. "Helen McEntee was there too, she was attracting a big following."

Several of the rebellious Fine Gael 'Five-A-Side Club' were there, under the watchful eye of some of the party's more suspicious members. Also present in the bar for a while was the soon-to-be junior minister Paschal Donohoe, looking well pleased with himself, some said.

Within the Dail chamber the atmosphere was equally heady. During the more stressful moments, a rebel TD was sworn at by a senior government figure who then informed a group of delighted colleagues of his act.

Two other government TDs also narrowly avoided the loss of the whip after Dan Neville, who had been in his office, missed a vote, and Labour TD Michael McNamara voted against the Government on the issue of fatal foetal abnormalities.

The immediate swarming of Labour TDs around McNamara when they realised he had voted against the posse was a clear sign that no one had seen it coming.

McNamara subsequently claimed confusion and exhaustion had led to the making of a "genuine mistake" on the issue.

Labour Whip Emmet Stagg said the nature of the error meant McNamara would not lose the party whip.

Labour was not about to allow its big moment of success to be overshadowed, certainly not by one of its own. Such an expulsion would have been deeply embarrassing for the Government because, had the letter of the law been applied, the Coalition would have lost seven TDs.

In the wake of the vote, Fianna Fail TD Timmy Dooley said to Stagg: "Man overboard?"

A source said: "Once McNamara had pressed the button, chaotic scenes followed. A group of TDs – Emmet Stagg, Arthur Spring, Ciara Conway, Michael McCarthy – were all around him saying, 'What are you doing? What are you doing?'

"After Stagg stormed out, the next thing we saw was Michael McNamara being bundled out of the House by a group of senior figures – they had him up against a wall, and he was getting a lesson about politics that they don't teach you in the Law Library".

Sympathy for Tom Barry was surprisingly thin on the ground in what is normally a House that is supportive of the one-off foibles of members.

Irish Independent

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