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Lise Hand: Mary works some magic as she sinks teeth into job

Honest to God, the deep-seated dysfunction displayed by the North's political family makes 'The Sopranos' look as well-adjusted as 'The Waltons'. The whingeing, finger-pointing, tantrums, strops and partisan pettifoggery had reached such audible levels of cacophonous petulance this week that both Brian Cowen and Gordon Brown felt obligated to strap on their capes and fly northwards in anxious formation to the rescue.

Thus, Tanaiste Mary Coughlan found herself unexpectedly in charge of running the country yesterday while her boss was listening to moany MLAs in Hillsborough Castle.

So it could have been expected that the opposition would be licking its collective chops in anticipation of causing a bit of trouble and having a bit of devilment at the expense of a less-than-sure-footed deputy leader. While the Top Cat's away, and all that.

But it seems that politicians south of the Border are capable of (occasionally) displaying the sort of polite restraint which has been distinctly lacking among their northern counterparts. For both the main opposition leaders -- normally spoiling for a scrap during the opening session of Leaders' Questions -- forbore to take out the Tanaiste with any flying tackles.

Perhaps Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore were leery of starting a fire-fight while the Taoiseach was stoically attempting to broker peace in another parliament. For both the Fine Gael and the Labour leader prefaced their questions with a bit of a cheer for their absent opponent.

"I am aware of the sensitivity and importance of the discussions taking place in Northern Ireland, which I hope can be brought to a successful conclusion. I wish those involved in the talks well," stated Enda.

"On behalf of the Labour Party, I want to say we support the efforts of the Taoiseach and the British prime minister in trying to bring about a resolution to matters," echoed Eamon.

It was clear that normal hostilities were to be suspended.

There was even a bit of good-natured bantering before Leaders' Questions began, when the late arrival of the Tanaiste into the chamber left Energy Minister Eamon Ryan sitting solo on the front bench, next to the seat usually occupied by the Taoiseach. A chorus of quips rose from the Fine Gael side, just to pass the time. "Move up one there, Eamon. A Green Taoiseach, eh?" "Cometh the hour, cometh the man". Sensibly, Eamon stayed where he was.

But when Mary finally hurried into her seat, she breezed her way through what is often a torrid session. Gilmore made a bit of an effort to hustle a reply out of her on the issue of future pay cuts for public sector workers.

"Will the Tanaiste give an assurance that the Government will not be going back a third time to cut the pay of employees whose pay has already been cut?" he demanded.

Mary wasn't walking into that minefield all on her ownio, and carefully kicked the question to touch.

"Nobody on this side of the House is in a position to predetermine what will happen in the context of budgetary adjustments next year," she hedged, before reiterating what seemed to be the Government's carrot-and-stick approach to that political hot potato.

"However, the Government is still very anxious to involve itself in public sector reform". (Stick.) "That reform will create savings and will therefore have a positive effect on the need for any further financial adjustments in next year's Budget." (Carrot.)

A little later, Eamon launched another half-hearted broadside during the Order of Business, when he asked Mary to "clarify a few points on the toothless secret investigation the Government is offering as an excuse for an inquiry".

But the Tanaiste had settled comfortably into the hot-seat by now, and was ready with a reply that she had possibly prepared earlier. "This inquiry is being set up to underpin confidence, not to undermine it," she replied swiftly.

However, the subject of teeth did arise again, when Labour's Emmet Stagg was haranguing Mary about the delay in introducing long-promised legislation on management agencies.

"Not even the Tooth Fairy could deliver it at this stage," grumbled Joan Burton.

The Tanaiste's wit took wing.

"I'm glad to see the members opposite believe in the Tooth Fairy," she quipped. "I hope you get your pound under your pillow."

Maybe if the Taoiseach puts a spare molar under his pillow, a magic potion to silence those moany MLAs will await him when he wakes.

Well, a leader can dream, can't he?

Irish Independent