Ceasefire greets nervous Ruth on Dail debut as the contest to replace Eamon begins to heat up
THE arrival of a brand new TD into Dail Eireann inevitably brings about a brief ceasefire in the chamber, as all sides put down their catapults to welcome with a round of applause the latest deputy on the block.
And so it was when Ruth Coppinger of the Socialist Party who won the Dublin West by-election walked into the chamber for the first time yesterday afternoon. Fine Gael's Longford-Westmeath by-election winner, Gabrielle McFadden will make her debut this morning.
All sides of the House – and her family and friends in the public gallery – clapped as a slightly nervous-looking Ruth was carefully shepherded down the steps by her clearly chuffed colleague Joe Higgins and taken on the round of introductions to the Ceann Comhairle, the Finance Minister Michael Noonan who was taking Leaders' Questions in the absence of a Brussels-bound Taoiseach, Gerry Adams and Micheal Martin.
Everyone said nice things. "I hope that your time here will be productive and happy," smiled Sean Barrett, while the Fianna Fail leader declared that he looked forward to "many a spirited and engaging debate as matters ensue".
Higgins began his speech by observing dryly: "I'm sure that the days following on will not be as serene and friendly as this moment, but sufficient for this day is the joy thereof." He then promptly went boots flying into the Coalition, deriding it as akin to "a pair of schoolyard bullies against whom the schoolyard has finally revolted, Fine Gael and Labour are left politically pummelled and punch drunk, one sprawled senseless on the floor, the other staggering around in a daze".
Still imbued by the fleeting sense of collegiality, everyone laughed at that one.
But Ruth's arrival was overshadowed by the fallout from the departure of the Labour leader the previous day. Everyone was agog – at lunchtime, one eager reporter quietly buttonholed a Labour backbencher as he strode along the corridors of Leinster House. "What are you going for?"
The deputy donned an expression of pure innocence. "I'm going for a coffee," he replied cheerily, as he sped past.
It was one of the more slick dodges to the most frequently asked question flung at Labour TDs yesterday as they climbed out of their smoking bunkers, following Eamon's dramatic resignation on Monday.
The Tanaiste's sudden announcement sparked Phase One of any leadership contest – The Phoney War. This is the testing-the-waters, looking-into-the-soul and crunching-the-numbers bit of the battle, when various tanks are milling about at the border but not firing off grenades.
All day, the big guns – Joan Burton, Brendan Howlin – remained silent, manoeuvring behind the scenes. Nor was junior health minister Alex White saying a word, perhaps preferring to keep their powder dry until after the party's executive board meeting last night and the parliamentary party meeting later this afternoon.
Junior transport minister Alan Kelly had no such scruples. He wants one or other of the jobs on offer, whether he fancies his chances at the big chair or would content himself with the deputy leadership is still unclear.
"I'm 38," he declared on the telly, reciting his political CV. It was a bit like speed-dating, minus his star-sign (Cancer).
But if Alan decides to contest for deputy leader, he may find himself in a crowded field. By late afternoon there were enough hats hovering over the ring to open a milliner's shop.
And several of the chapeaux belonged to the eight TDs and one senator who waved about the dagger of a no-confidence motion.
Their launch of an offensive on the leader offended some of their colleagues and a testy Ruairi Quinn was peppering over the airwaves, huffing that they should have had the "decency" to give advance notice of their plan.
The phoney war will probably end today, with some of the runners and riders breaking cover. Joan Burton is the early favourite – though not necessarily with the senior coalition partners. One senior member of Fine Gael was most alarmed at the prospect of Joan Burton getting the nod. "We'll have a general election by Christmas," he whispered. Perhaps Ruth should keep her posters in the garden shed. Just in case.