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Terry Prone: Oh Mary! Things must be bad when you're using that old 'sexism' line

When Fine Gael's Charlie Flanagan was accused by Tanaiste Mary Coughlan of being sexist, he must have had one of those ghastly moments where you try to play back in your head what you've just said, in case you said something you seriously did not mean to say.

He'd have been helped by an instant replay, which would have shown that Mary, outlining a proposal, had described it as "huge legislation." Charlie promptly told her it was too big for her. Back came the answer: "If you want to throw a condescending sexist remark across the House, fine. This is very much of the calibre of yourself, Deputy Flanagan, and I would expect more from you after all these years in the House."

So there's poor Charlie Flanagan, gobsmacked and trembling in his little boots at the possibility of having said something sexist, not helped by trying to work out what the hell the rest of her accusation meant.

"Very much of the calibre of yourself" is not a usage tripping off the rest of our tongues on a daily basis, but let's give a girl -- ooops, sorry, a woman -- the benefit of the doubt.

Let's assume she meant this was typical of Charlie. Right? Right. Well, if it was typical of him, if it was what he always does, then why would she expect more of him after his years in the Dail?

While Charlie was parsing the peculiarities, Olivia Mitchell was cutting to the chase.

"Where was it sexist?" she asked, apropos Charlie's remark.

Answer came there none, for the very good reason that Charlie Flanagan was innocent. His anthem du jour could have been Billy Joel's I Am An Innocent Ma-a-an. Now, he wasn't innocent of the intent to give the Tanaiste a quick (if metaphorical) smack in the kisser with a wet fish.

He was not innocent of the wish to insult her by suggesting she was not up to the handling of this particular piece of legislation. He was not positive, open-minded and sitting on the Opposition benches with his lips slightly parted in rapturous expectation of the oratorical gems Mary might share.

That's because Charlie Flanagan is smart. Country lawyers, you know? He has the Tanaiste's measure.


Like many, he has seen her fail on issues of detail. But -- unless I've missed him at it -- Charlie Flanagan has never referred to the Tanaiste as "a lovely girl from Donegal" or gone in for any of that sexist stuff. He's just behaved as he would to any man in her role: dismissively.

Except, in her case he has some evidence to back up his dismissal, since she's clearly not big enough to cope with Michael O'Leary, the date of the Lisbon referendum and who it was first addressed the issue of evolution. No wonder he gaped at her in silence after the accusation.

Probably needs counselling, does Charlie, after that scary moment when he wondered if he'd put his foot in his mouth. No wonder Olivia Mitchell was so puzzled about the accusation.

The real question is why Mary Coughlan would reach for the sexism accusation at all. It was she herself, remember, who facilitated media in big stories with pictures about how she'd lost a lost of weight and looked even prettier as a result. So -- very sensibly -- she's not above playing the Pretty Woman card when it's useful.

If you believe off-the-cuff remarks or slips of the tongue carry a deep unintended meaning, you'll believe Mary is hiding behind gender to prevent people accepting she's just not up to the job, just not big enough for complex law-making.

The old axiom was that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. A new variation might be that an accusation of sexism is the last refuge of a minister who's under pressure and worried about a reshuffle.