The most memorable gaffes and blunders in Irish politics in 2020
We can all agree on one thing, 2020 has been memorable and momentous, not least in the realm of Irish politics, which has undergone something of a rollercoaster year.
It may be difficult to believe, but the General Election happened just eight months ago, and since the public vote resulted in a dramatic shift in the balance of power, the country has been through a torturous Government formation process and numerous periods of uncertainty and change.
While unprecedented political developments and shifts marked 2020 in various ways, many will remember the year just gone through the wide array of political gaffes and blunders we enjoyed and endured, from David Cullinane’s ‘Up the Ra’ victory speech to the infamous Golfgate scandal.
Charlie Flanagan and the RIC/DMP Commemoration
When the Fine Gael-Independent Alliance Government announced that an official commemoration for the members of the Royal Irish Constabulary and the Dublin Metropolitan Police who lost their lives in the struggle for Irish Independence would be held in Dublin Castle in January, there was massive backlash.
The event was attributed to then Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan, who bore the brunt of the criticism from members of the public who argued that agents of the British administration in Ireland should not be commemorated, insisting (questionably) that the Dublin Castle event would be akin to paying tribute to the Black and Tans and the Auxiliaries.
Fianna Fáil leader described the planned event as an ‘error of judgement’, while historian Diarmaid Ferriter, a member of the Expert Advisory Group on centenary commemorations, insisted that no such event had been recommended. The event was cancelled, as Mr Flanagan expressed shock at the ‘nastiness and vitriol’ he was subjected to as a consequence.
David Cullinane’s election night speech
The 2020 General Election marked and unexpected surge in support for Sinn Fein, which became the main opposition party after returning 37 TDs to Dail Eireann. One of those who reclaimed his seat was Waterford TD David Cullinane, who has since been appointed Sinn Fein’s health spokesperson.
Cullinane caused something of a stir on election night, however, by going on quite the Republican rant while celebrating his election. The Sinn Fein TD came under heavy criticism after stating: ‘They didn’t break the hunger strikers, they didn’t break Bobby Sands and Kevin Lynch. They will never break us and they will never break Sinn Fein.’
Cullinane concluded his speech with a controversial whoop of ‘Up the Ra’. The Waterford man subsequently apologised for his words, which were roundly condemned by his party colleagues, including Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald and finance spokesperson Pearse Doherty.
Eamon Ryan’s Convention Centre nap
Despite winning the Green Party leadership race and bringing his party into Government for the first time since 2011, Eamon Ryan hasn’t had the best of years in 2020. The Dublin Bay South TD slipped up on a number of occasions: in June, Mr Ryan drew criticism for using the ‘n-word‘ in a discussion about the prevalence of racism in Ireland, and there was also a rather interesting speech made in July, during which the Green Party leader frantically encouraged the people of Ireland to grow lettuce in south-facing window boxes.
If you asked Mr Ryan what moment of 2020 he wishes he could redo, however, he would probably avoid being caught napping in the Convention Centre during a sensitive vote relating to legislation on workers’ rights for those in lower-paid jobs.
The incident in question took place on July 16, as Fianna Fail TD Jack Chambers had to wake Mr Ryan to cast his vote. The Green Party leader subsequently stated that his gaffe represented a ‘moment of human frailty’, adding: ‘I regret it deeply’.
Less than three weeks after the Programme for Government he helped to negotiate was finally ratified, Fianna Fail TD Barry Cowen was sacked as Minister for Agriculture over the controversy surrounding his conviction for drink driving on a provisional licence in 2016.
Shortly after the Offaly TD was appointed to the new Cabinet, it emerged that he had been handed a three-month driving ban in 2016 after he was apprehended drink driving on a provisional licence while returning from the All Ireland football final. Initially, Taoiseach Micheal Martin defended his party colleague, who delivered a statement to the Dáil apologising for his actions.
However, as the controversy dragged on and it was alleged that Mr Cowen had attempted to evade arrest on the date in question, his position was held to be untenable by his party leader, who asked President Michael D Higgins to revoke his ministerial appointment. Mr Cowen denies that he made any attempt to evade arrest, and stated that he was ‘surprised and disappointed’ to lose his position in Cabinet.
It was not a good year to be appointed Minister for Agriculture. Less than a month after he replaced Barry Cowen at the Cabinet table, Fianna Fail TD Dara Calleary resigned after it emerged that he attended the infamous Oireachtas Golf Society dinner in Clifden, Co Galway, on August 19, breaching COVID-19 restrictions in the process.
Golfgate, as the scandal came to be known, claimed quite a few political casualties, as Mr Calleary’s resignation was quickly followed by that of Fine Gael Senator Jerry Buttimer, who stepped down from his role as Leas Cathaoirleach of the Seanad over the controversy. Former European Commissioner Phil Hogan put up much more of a struggle after it emerged that he had also attended the dinner.
Although Mr Hogan repeatedly insisted that he had not acted unlawfully, the publication of details of his movements in the days surrounding the Golf Society dinner complicated his position, and he eventually stepped down following talks with President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen.
Stephen Donnelly’s trampoline analogy
Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly is another politician who probably wouldn’t chalk 2020 down as a fantastic year, despite entering Government for the first time and receiving a senior Cabinet appointment.
Mr Donnelly experienced a few wobbly moments during the second half of the year, but his bizarre trampoline analogy when explaining the Government’s determination to keep schools open stands out. Appearing on Virgin Media News on August 19, Mr Donnelly confused the public by likening the risk of COVID-19 infection in schools to driving a car or jumping on a trampoline.
While the Fianna Fail TD stated that he understood the concerns of parents and teachers about the reopening of schools, he explained: ‘There’s things we do in life that inherently carry a risk. We manage risk in our lives every time we get into a car. Driving a car is an inherently risking thing to do. So we have seatbelts. We have all of these things. Playing sports is an inherently risky thing to do. Our children being on trampolines is an inherently risky thing to be doing.’
Leo Varadkar’s ‘leak’ to the National Association of General Practitioners
Finally, another major political gaffe of 2020 was the controversy surrounding Tanaiste Leo Varadkar’s decision to give a copy of a confidential contract concluded in April 2019 between his Government and the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) to Dr Maitiú Ó Tuathail, a personal friend of the Fine Gael leader and then head of rival medical organisation the National Association of General Practitioners (NAGP).
Mr Varadkar addressed the Dáil to apologise for his ‘error in judgement’, insisting that he acted in the best interests of the Irish healthcare services and had not undermined the IMO in any way.
Sinn Fein tabled a motion of no confidence in Mr Varadkar as a result, which the Government subverted by tabling its own motion of confidence. Mr Varadkar easily won the motion of confidence, and was enabled to remain in his role as Taoiseach.
The Brian Stanley Twitter saga
Sinn Féin TD Brian Stanley was thrust under the spotlight in early December when he posted a tweet likening the Kilmichael Ambush that occurred in Co Cork during the War of Independence to the Warrenpoint Ambush that occurred in Co Down during the Troubles.
Mr Stanley was forced to apologise for the ‘inappropriate and insensitive’ comparison he drew between the attacks, in which 17 and 18 British soldiers were killed respectively, and his remark that both ambushes showed that members of the British Government were ‘slow learners’ when it came to the occupation of Ireland.
Mr Stanley came in for further criticism over a tweet he posted when Leo Varadkar was elected leader of Fine Gael in 2017, in which he described the Tanaiste as a ‘tory boy’ and seemed to refer to his sexuality. Mr Stanley insisted that his record on LGBT rights ‘speaks for itself’, but apologised to Mr Varadkar after taking some time off to reflect on his tweets.