Sunday 15 September 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'Unlike ministers, the Dail rat was doing no harm'

The large rodent spotted in the members' bar at Leinster House is a potent symbol of Irish politics, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

'If anyone is deserving of sympathy here, it's the rat'
'If anyone is deserving of sympathy here, it's the rat'

Eilis O'Hanlon

Some might say the incident of the large rodent seen in the Dail members' bar is the first example of a rat actually clambering aboard a sinking ship, rather than deserting it.

Admittedly, Irish politics isn't in a totally submerged state just yet, but it's certainly taken a few holes below the water line in the current term, and cynics could be forgiven for wondering if Fine Gael actually arranged for the rat to make an appearance to distract attention from its woes.

Not that anyone was asking awkward questions. They were too concerned with that troublesome rat - the one who scurried across the floor in the bar, that is, not one of the many TDs who might otherwise qualify for such an unflattering epithet.

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Everyone is in that end-of-term mood, when they just want to get out the door for the holidays, even if they haven't produced much in the way of legislation to justify a summer of leisure.

In a way, the story of the rat symbolises much of what's wrong with Irish politics right now, namely the focus on relatively trivial matters at the expense of more important issues. That's practically become Health Minister Simon Harris's party trick, as seen in his latest announcement that creating exclusion zones around clinics where abortion is provided, to stop pro-life protests, will be a "major priority" once the Dail returns in September.

Protests may be an irritant, even unkind to women affected, but does it really deserve to go straight to the top of the Government's "to do" list, when the cervical cancer scandal continues to deepen, with health officials apparently knowing as far back as February that a computer glitch meant hundreds of women had not received their test results?

Last week alone, waiting lists for outpatients hit a new record high of 560,251; psychiatric nurses spoke of doing unpaid overtime because of a crisis in recruitment; and more than 6,000 people were waiting for home help support. Faced with this litany of emergencies, the minister's new obsession is to roll out free contraception.

Again, it may be less than ideal that those without a medical card must pay for their own contraception, but no more than the fact that those without a medical card must also pay for their own medicines and doctors' appointments in general.

Why is the Government apparently so obsessed with providing free condoms to all, especially when signing contracts with condom companies to provide their products for free in strategically placed vending machines will probably end up meaning every condom costs the State a small fortune? That's what usually happens with these public contracts. Look at the restoration of Leinster House itself, which was responsible for disturbing that infamous rat in the first place. That's now expected to cost more than twice the original estimate. Well, of course it is. Who really believed any project signed off by the Government would come in on budget?

To be fair, Minister Harris isn't the only one who has his eye on the smaller, rather than bigger, picture as a no-deal Brexit gets set, according to the Tanaiste, to hit the country like an economic tidal wave.

Even the announcement that the rat had "surrendered" - a nice way of saying it had been killed, because euphemisms are also the order of the day right now - came with a reassurance that it was believed to be a "lone invader", rats being renowned for just appearing singly. Sure, he probably had the whole place to himself. There's no need to worry, everything will work out in the end - rats, homelessness, Brexit. Don't worry, be happy.

There is other symbolism at play. Leinster House is undergoing extensive renovations to make the 18th Century building habitable as a modern working environment. The metaphor of a cumbersome edifice no longer fit for purpose is too potent to resist. Something is rotten in the State, and it keeps escaping from the darkness down below, and scurrying across the floors of the mighty.

If anyone deserves any sympathy here, it's the rat. There he was, minding his own business in his own home, just trying to make ends meet and help himself to some jam, and he finds himself chased around the place by people with golf clubs trying to whack him into submission. That could almost stand as a symbol of the contemporary citizen in an age of Big Government, which just won't leave us the heck alone.

To them, we're all rats living in the sewers beneath their feet, and it's their job to whack us with clubs when we have the audacity to get a taste for jam or otherwise make our presence felt. At least the rat wasn't raking in expenses. RIP, Mr Rat. He was, no doubt, not the most hygienic occupant of the building, but, unlike the other creatures in Leinster House, he wasn't costing the country a cent.

When they come back on September 17 to start another Dail term, TDs, ministers and Senators would do well to ask whether it's they or the rodents who've done most damage.

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