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Lise Hand: Big Phil gets a break, and it's a woman he can thank

Micheal Martin took careful aim and gleefully flung the barb he had lovingly crafted earlier. "The Government's attitude is practically Orwellian. Big Phil is going to get you, is the mantra," he declared with a big wide grin. Behind him, the Fianna Fail tails were in the air.

Big Phil's in the wars. The brown stuff is flying at him in hefty fistfuls from all directions. It's a bad day when the depleted ranks of the Soldiers of Destiny can land a decent punch on the towering Environment Minister.

But these are tough times for Phil Hogan. There was last month's hoo-ha over the septic tanks imbroglio, which ended in him executing a screeching handbrake turn that would've brought a tear to the eye of a Duke of Hazzard, after he reduced the levy from 50 scoots to a fiver.

But that had barely died down when it all kicked off again over the minister's €100 household charge, which rapidly appears to be descending into disarray as the March 31 deadline looms and a large proportion of the citizenry show little inclination to cough up on time.

And Phil's getting it in the neck from all quarters on this wheeze, and now he's even getting stick from Fianna Fail, which is luxuriating in the unfamiliar sensation of taunting the Government for being all of a doodah over the likelihood of this levy transmogrifying into a bloody great big banana-skin.

And Micheal wasted no time in getting stuck into the Tanaiste, who was taking Leaders' Questions in the Dail yesterday afternoon. The Fianna Fail leader leisurely listed the causes of confusion over the household charge -- the lack of leafleting and the puzzlement over whether or not the €100 could be paid in a post office, for instance.

The campaign had, charged Micheal, been handled "in a ham-fisted manner, before he described the whole carry-on as "Orwellian" -- though in truth it's less dystopian than dysfunctional.

"No matter what -- whether it's through utility charges or through pay cheques. There's nowhere to run, nowhere to hide -- Big Phil is watching you, he will make you pay," he sniped to muffled chuckles around the chamber. (Not too loud, just in case the absent Big Phil actually WAS watching).

And as if the embattled minister hadn't enough trouble on his heaped plate, he also went and earned himself the disapprobation of various members of Mna na hEireann as well. First, according to a newspaper report at the weekend, he penned a letter of apology over a crass remark he made to a woman at last year's Oireachtas golf outing last summer.

And then the formidable and forensic doyenne of political commentary, broadcaster Olivia O'Leary, lambasted Big Phil in her weekly radio diary on RTE's 'Drivetime' on Monday night.

Early on in her report, Olivia declared that "almost all on his own, Hogan is fast generating for this Government what destroyed the last one -- an air of bullying incompetence".

And it goes downhill from there.

So it was somewhat ironic that yesterday, Big Phil was required to commune with his inner feminista in the afternoon as he ushered into the Dail the second stage of the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Bill -- that's the bill that legislates for the introduction of gender quotas to Irish politics.

But as it turned out, Phil Hogan made a quiet entrance, undamaged by a fusillade of flying shoes from the small percentage (15pc) of women deputies in the Lower House of the Oireachtas.

And although the introduction of this bill has sparked much robust debate on the issue of gender quotas, Big Phil made it clear that, like Kilkenny's own Tammy Wynette, he was Standing By His Women (but not too close, Phil).

"Some, in questioning the need for these measures, have suggested that they may be unconstitutional. While I welcome the debate, I reject these views," he stated.

And then put-upon Phil caught a break.

Sinn Fein's Mary Lou McDonald, a woman well able to hold her own in the bear-pit of the Dail chamber, stood up and gave Phil's Bill the thumbs-up in the course of an excellent speech.

"I find myself in the very pleasant position of warmly welcoming this particular piece of legislation and in particular the gender quotas contained within it," she said approvingly.

However, she did get in a sly dig at the blokes. For while she supported gender quotas as a necessary evil, Mary Lou added: "I'm not arguing for tokenistic women, for a more colourful or attractive chamber -- though I'm sure that would be welcomed by many," she said archly.

And Phil may have caught a second lucky break. Today the spotlight leaves him and lands on the Mahon Tribunal report, and all the doings of one Bertie Ahern.

Then Fianna Fail may wish it was Orwell's world of 'Nineteen Eighty-Four', which had a 'memory hole' -- a mechanism to disappear any documents that might prove embarrassing to the Party in an attempt to give the impression that something never happened.

That would be one busy memory hole today.

Irish Independent