Father Jack made his Dáil debut for the Rural Independents on Tuesday and the Ceann Comhairle was not amused.
From his elevated throne at the head of the chamber, Seán Ó Fearghail is better positioned than most to monitor emissions from the Roaring Independents so we wouldn’t have heard all he did as he battled to contain noises off from the rural rump to his right.
Not even half an hour into the new Dáil session and he was already thoroughly fed up with the rowdy behaviour from those TDs who bothered turning up for the first Leaders’ Question of the season. In his groundless optimism, Ó’Fearghail had hoped deputies “would have come back more restrained” after their two week break for Easter.
He’ll never learn.
Bellowing protests from the raucous front row of Rural Independents about turf, Eamon Ryan, cycling and salads did little to ease his pain. Finally, he shot a vicious glance in the direction of one of the two huffing Healy-Raes (Danny) and snapped, “We don’t need Father Jack either to interrupt”.
The Ceann must have divined a few more words to apply such a moniker to the independent TD for Kerry. All most observers could make out were repeated howls of “turf!”, hardly enough to make an enduring catchphrase even if spluttered with overtones of the cantankerous Craggy Island cleric.
Restraint was never going to catch on with all hell breaking loose over turf cutting rights and whether or not people will be arrested if caught in possession of cannabis or peat for personal use only.
Actually, we might be confusing cannabis with green tea. Mattie McGrath said the Taoiseach was off his head on green tea because he seemed to think that the idea of the Government locking up grannies for buying a few sods to put on the fire was laughable.
The leader of the Rural Independents came to this conclusion after Micheál Martin adopted a rather light-hearted approach to the keening and wailing from outraged TURFs (Turf Upholding Rural/Republican Firebrands) across the floor who remained unconvinced that people cutting supplies from their own land will not be criminalised along with elderly neighbours who take delivery of a few bags.
Mary Lou McDonald led the charge to defend this traditional right, doubtless thinking back to those wintry days when she was a little girl making her way to school through the pungent peaty smoke-filled avenues of Rathgar with a sod of turf in her schoolbag for the classroom fire. The Sinn Féin leader insisted on clarity from the Taoiseach on the question of whether ordinary people will be banned from working their own patches of bog.
She was backed up all the way by the Rural Independents, roaring loudly in support. They felt Micheál was saying sod all about the burning issue, choosing instead to talk about cost-of-living mitigation measures introduced by the Government including reductions in excise on fuel, VAT reductions and energy credits. As he ran through a long list, his flow was punctuated by Danny bellowing “turf!” at regular intervals, ably assisted by his brother Michael and Roaring Independent colleagues.
Mary Lou urged him to ‘stick to turf!’ before going off on a tangent about home heating oil
They got very boisterous by the end of Mary Lou’s follow-up question, which prompted the Ceann Comhairle’s comparison to Father Jack.
“People will not be stopped from using their own turf. I don’t know how many times I have to say it in the House”, protested the Taoiseach, stressing that “traditional practices” will continue and people who cut turf from their own bog will be able to share it with their neighbours. But as contentious, emotive issues go, the idea of taking away the people’s turf is “manna from heaven” for his political opponents.
In a confusingly diverting discussion on turbary rights and grannies risking a spell in the clink for putting a sod of turf in their empty grate on a cold evening, the argument between Micheál and Mary Lou ranged from peat to home heating oil to coal and back to turf. He noted the Sinn Féin leader never mentioned anything about improving air quality, reminding her of the work done by former minister Mary Harney in the early 1990s when she introduced legislation to eliminate smog from Dublin city.
“The real issue here is….”
“Turf” they cried across the floor.
“…smokey coal,” said the Taoiseach.
“Turf and you’re afraid to answer it,” shouted Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty.
Mary Lou, in an effort to stop him rambling about mitigation measures, carbon taxes and excise duties, urged him to “stick to turf!” before going off on a tangent about home heating oil.
No, the real villain is smokey coal “actually”, stressed Micheál, very keen to point out that there is a big problem with the illegal importation of solid fuel from across the Border. “Lots of smoky coal is coming into the Republic and it should not. The North should ban it also. The North should deal with it.”
“I asked about turf” said Mary Lou tartly, bringing the shutters down swiftly on the Border fuel question.
The Rural Independents chimed in. “Turf! What about Turf?” Micheál told them to calm down, which was guaranteed to rile them up even more. There was a lot of heat, but very little light. Eventually, like a nice turf fire, the roaring died down. Mary Lou sat back, job done. The Taoiseach muttered “Don’t sue me” as he sat down, smiling to himself.
It had just emerged that the Sinn Féin leader is suing RTÉ for defamation for an, as yet, undisclosed reason. She didn’t hear him, he hadn’t meant for her to hear him, but journalist Daniel Murray of the Business Post, sitting directly above him on the press gallery, heard his sotto voce remark and tweeted about it. Sinn Féin is not amused, we understand.