THIS week the Republic of Ireland became one of the places on the planet worst hit by Covid. On Monday there had been more cases there in the previous fortnight than there had been in the first eight months of the pandemic.
Which is rather embarrassing for the coalition government of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Greens, given that it’s not that long ago since the Republic was being held up as an exemplar of Covid best practice, and indeed it was only last month that it seemed as though the north of Ireland was set to top the Covid charts (in fact the figures here have seen a significant fall).
There’s a lot of anger coalescing around Tánaiste Leo Varadkar in particular, as it was he who in October decided to go on the Claire Byrne Live show and take on the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet). That’s the Department of Health unit tasked with providing direction and advice to inform the government’s policy on Covid.
Leo had a go at Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan, whose recommendations on what level the country should be at had not been “thought through”. He added that the advice to move to a restrictive Level 5 had “landed on us”. And now that it looks like the hyper-cautious approach that Nphet advocated has been vindicated as the numbers soar, Leo’s feeling the heat his temperature will mean he’ll probably need a Covid test.
Not to worry, though, the Irish Times, which battled manfully to downplay the scandal that erupted in November over Leo’s leaking of a confidential medical agreement, again leapt to his defence. In a move which both intrigued and appalled social media, the paper ran with a story headlined ‘It needed to be said – public praise for Varadkar’s criticism of Nphet’.
And what was this public praise that prompted the Irish Times to sing Leo’s praises even as he was being lambasted just about everywhere else? Well, it turns out that 55 people emailed Leo after the October programme supporting what he said about his government’s own medical experts. No, you didn’t read that wrong. The Irish ‘paper of record’ prominently ran a story saying that the Tánaiste had received a few dozen emails saying he was sound as a pound. And as the story didn’t claim that the emails were acquired by the Irish Times as a result of a Freedom of Information request, we can only assume that Leo and Fine Gael provided them.
Next time Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald gets into a bit of soapy bubble (and down south that won’t be long), what do you think would be the chances of success if she called the Irish Times newsdesk and offered them a few dozen letters saying she’d actually handled the whole thing rather splendidly? Squinter’s going to leave you to work that one out on your own.
It’s yet another example of Golden Boy Leo getting a media pass. The November medical agreement leak has been mentioned here already, but one of the most passionate points made in the emergency debate in the Dáil about the scandal was that if Leo was allowed to get away with leaking a commercially and politically sensitive confidential document, what would it mean for the future? How would it deter a man already known as Leo the Leak from going down that route again? Perhaps more importantly, why on earth wouldn’t everybody else leak if it suited their purposes and there was no censure? The argument didn’t win the day – the three coalition parties all voted confidence in the Tánaiste and Leo cracked on as if nothing had happened.
And then, to the surprise of precisely zero people in Ireland, it turned out this week that the long-awaited report into mother and baby homes in Ireland had been leaked to the Irish Independent. The shocking report reveals that 9,000 children died across 18 homes. Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman was incensed by the leak, pointing out very correctly that the survivors should have been the first to hear of the findings and not readers of the Indo.
Squinter felt Roderic’s pain, but his sympathy was rather tempered by the fact that the Green TD had voted to support Leo Varadkar after the Tánaiste had admitted leaking that confidential medical agreement. There’s no suggestion that Leo leaked this report, but can Roderic really be that surprised at this latest development when he helped bring about an environment where leaking is a consequence-free activity?
Maybe there should be an inquiry into leaking in Ireland generally.
And then when the inquiry report is leaked there should be an inquiry into…
Let’s leave it there, shall we?
DUP South Belfast MLA Christopher Stalford took to his feet with all the gravitas and certitude of a man who knew he was about to set cities alight, to bring empires crashing down around him.
In his young fogey three-piece suit, pinstripe blue shirt, blue tie and Tintin haircut, he produced and brandished a paper with the air of a man with the hand of history upon his sloping shoulders.
“Sir, my question is for the deputy First Minister,” he told the Speaker, his voice quavering just a little with the dread import of his words. “In her statement the deputy First Minister says ‘Not to act decisively would present a material risk.’ Yet, sir, I’ve been informed that last Saturday there was a major republican funeral held in Beragh, County Tyrone. Why do these rules, now legally enforceable with the power of the law, apply to everybody else but Sinn Féiners?”
Christopher sat down, his thin lips held in a determined line, his owlish aspect accentuated by his Eoin Ó Broin-style glasses. Clearly rattled, the Blonde (© Arlene Foster) took to her feet, feeling, but afraid to acknowledge, the laser beam of Christopher’s unflinching gaze as she spoke.
“Well, I can’t comment on a funeral that happened in Beragh,” said Michelle O’Neill, attempting but failing to affect unconcern. “I wasn’t there and I don’t know anything about it.” She slumped in her seat, bamboozled, defeated. But Christopher was in no mood to back away from his wounded prey. Leaping to his feet, he addressed the Speaker once more.
“If it is established, sir, that elected representatives of Sinn Féin did indeed attend a republican funeral that breached these regulations will the deputy First Minister be demanding their resignation?”
Was that a whimper from the Sinn Féin leader in the north? Whether it was or not, her final response bore eloquent testimony to the fact that she felt her career slipping away.
“I’m not going to comment on something I don’t know anything about.”
Christopher stayed in his seat. What need of further action? His job was done. The merest trace of a smile flitted across his once boyish face, now lined with the cares of Sandy Row high office. Senior colleagues slowly nodded their approval.
Later that evening, in the parochial house next to the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Beragh, Parish Priest Father Colum Curry switched off the TV news, puffed out his cheeks and considered what he had just seen and heard. And a thought occurred to Father Colum as he replayed Christopher’s words in his head. And that thought was ‘This guy’s talkin’ boolers.’
End of Chapter One.
You’ll have to go on Amazon and buy the book when it comes out to learn the full story of this thrilling drama, but so’s you’re not left hanging, Squinter will précis the embarrassing dénouement of Christopher’s bid for political greatness, of his audacious attempt to take down a republican big beast.
Turns out there was no republican funeral in Beragh at all. Turns out the guy who was buried was a Dublin-born former Irish army man who was taken to his place of rest in a tricolour-draped coffin. Anto Duffy was a passionate GAAman and a “flabber-gasted” Fr Curry told Belfast Live that the family of the deceased would be “very upset and very offended” by Christopher Stalford’s words in the chamber. He said the funeral had been conducted with limited numbers and in full accordance with public health guidance. It was not, he pointed out, a republican funeral, never mind a major one.
“For somebody to construe that [the tricolour on the coffin] into being a ‘major republican funeral’ is an absolute disgrace,” he said, “and I think it portrays a certain amount of ignorance and bad manners.”
He added: “I was flabbergasted. When I heard the name Beragh mentioned I thought they must be getting mixed up with somewhere else.
When it came, the trumpet sounding Christopher’s retreat was more embarrassed than apologetic.
"My comments were focused on suggestions that numbers gathered for the funeral may have been in breach of current Covid regulations and amongst those in attendance were (sic) at least one Sinn Féin elected representative,” he said in a statement.
“However, reference to a 'major republican funeral' was inaccurate and I accept I was mistaken in that regard.”
To be fair to Christopher, he did acknowledge that he was mistaken. Which is all there is to be fair to him about in this mess, because what else can you do when you’ve ballsed up other than admit you’ve ballsed up? Perhaps Christopher could have used his statement to apologise to a family which the PP said would be “very upset and very offended” by someone talking utter tosh about their loved one’s funeral.
But he chose not to.
Which was kind of par for the course, because Christopher has form when it comes to taking what you might call the back way out of a tight corner. Who can forget the time in October 2018 when Christopher blessed himself as he passed UUP MLA Robbie Butler in a Stormont corridor? Robbie had just attended a reception in Dublin for Pope Francis. Once again doing a handbrake turn before reaching the apology sign, Christopher said he had blessed himself in front of Robbie as a joke. “I would never mock or deride someone because of their religious belief because I am a man of religious belief,” he said.
To which we all say, Amen to that. Or at least, some of us do.