When politicians need to show they (really, really) care Writes Gene Kerrigan
There are times when I think newspaper columns that deal with Irish politics should be written by theatre critics. What passes for political activity is often no more than contrived drama.
Last week’s dramas, to be fair, surpassed O’Casey and would have been very much appreciated by Beckett.
The entire Dáil last Wednesday engaged in a theatrical production, based on a Sinn Féin motion on the National Maternity Hospital.
There were a couple of sub-plots involving the Green Party.
In the middle of all this, Taoiseach Micheál Martin mounted his own one-man show, “I Care, I Care, I Really, Really Care”.
Micheál first raised the curtain on this heart-rending story in 2019.
But we’ll come to his solo triumph in a moment. The dramatic highlight of the week was the way the parties chose to wind up the National Maternity Hospital controversy.
The issue hadn’t been resolved in debate — which, to be fair, had a whiff of panto about it. But the Government needed to look like it knew what it was doing, so the curtain was brought down somewhat abruptly.
Sinn Féin put down a motion instructing the Government to secure ownership of the hospital site.
The TDs voted and the votes were counted and then solemnly ann-ounced, as though some kind of democratic event had taken place.
The Dáil passed the motion by 56 votes to 10! Two Green TDs voted for the motion and were turfed out of the parliamentary party! Ah, look, Joxer, talk about drama!
Of course, the motion was “non- binding”.
That meant it didn’t matter who voted which way, it was all straight from the School of Performative Arts (motto: “Saying It Is Doing It”).
The resolution had no consequence whatever in the real world.
It was all for show: the resolution, the Green Party rebellion, Eamon
Ryan’s frown, the will-they-won’t-they media reporting, it was all contrived drama.
If every TD who voted on the motion had stayed home all day watching Netflix, it wouldn’t have made a difference to anyone on the planet.
The entire production was meaningless.
The Micheál Martin drama — “I Care, I Care, I Really, Really Care” — was much more professionally staged.
In September of 2019, RTÉ’s Prime Time carried a story by reporter Eithne O’Brien, about eight-year old twins Ryan and Kyle Milne and their parents, Gillian and Darren. The boys are severely autistic and desperately needed places in a special school.
Their parents put heart and soul into caring for the children, but what Ryan and Kyle needed was specialist education skills.
The State can afford to hire such skills; the children are entitled to them; the State withheld the support it is obliged to provide.
Among the many moved by the Prime Time story in September 2019 was Micheál Martin. Next day in the Dáil, he criticised the government, which was then led by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.
“The Government, through its agencies, has clearly failed these children and parents,” said Micheál. “Why are these children not prioritised when it comes to getting into school?”
He was crafting a drama, with himself in a leading role.
“Every other kid goes back to school in September. Why is there always a problem for quite a number of children with special needs to get school places in September?”
Micheál was championing special needs children.
It was true his party was keeping Fine Gael in office, through a “confidence and supply” arrangement, but he wanted it seen that he would make the Taoiseach accountable.
Mr Varadkar, displaying Fine Gael’s compassion, revealed the education minister was examining the case of Ryan and Kyle, “to see if there is anything more that can be done more quickly”.
Fine Gael, you see, was already on the job. Nice plot twist.
A week after the September 2019 Prime Time report, the Dáil staged a debate on special needs education (they cared, they really, really cared).
Last Tuesday, Prime Time presented another report on Ryan and Kyle, this one by Conor McMorrow.
The children are now 11. Their circumstances, it became clear, hadn’t improved at all in the two years and eight months that had passed.
Their parents made extraordinary efforts, day after day, year after year. The help the State could well afford to provide remained stubbornly unforthcoming.
The State, though, has a constitutional obligation to provide every child, including Ryan and Kyle, with an education suitable to their needs.
The education minister had allegedly had a look at the case — the taoiseach of the previous government, Mr Varadkar, had knowledge of the case.
The current Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, not only knew of Ryan and Kyle’s case but had claimed the role of champion of all such children.
And nine months after he heard of the Milne case he became Taoiseach. He’s now almost two years in the job.
Yet none of this heavyweight political attention mattered a damn. No one said: “We have a duty, we have the resources, use them.” No one gave the order: “Just bloody well do what we have a duty to do.”
As Taoiseach, both Varadkar and Martin had unique knowledge of the case. We don’t know what, if anything, they did — but it wasn’t what was needed.
Now, last week, Mr Martin had a problem. Having identified himself as a leading player in the drama, he had done nothing for the twins, and the second Prime Time report was causing a bigger stir. He looked weak.
Micheál immediately apologised to the family, while carefully apportioning blame. “The State has failed the Milne family and Ryan and Kyle in particular,” he said.
Note the subtlety? In 2019, he specifically accused Mr Varadkar’s “government” of failing the children. Now, in 2022, with his own government in place, he blamed “the State” — a large, anonymous entity.
Gillian Milne said Micheál Martin’s apology was “too little, too late”.
Micheál saw that the hero was in danger of being seen as a villain — Lord knows, the audience might even begin to hiss.
He had to act immediately. And he did. And the educational needs of the twins were met, as if by magic.
Almost three years had passed since Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar learned of the case, and the children were left unaided all that time.
Conor McMorrow’s report went out last Tuesday — and by Friday the Milne boys were assigned to a special needs class. Three days.
Ryan and Kyle’s parents were thrilled. “Hopefully,” Gillian said, “that opens the doors for all the other kids with special needs to get places in the appropriate settings for their needs.”
She asked the question we all wanted to ask. “If it was that simple, why has it taken all these years to sort out?”
Well, let’s think it through.
Two TDs felt the National Maternity Hospital issue mattered enough to rebel in the meaningless little drama of the non-binding vote.
RTÉ’s Mícheál Lehane wrote last week that FF/FG TDs told him privately “a dozen or more” deputies considered voting against the Government a few weeks ago on the “turf issue”.
How many TDs do you think we could rely on to rebel against the Government on behalf of special needs children?
Maybe someone, some time, will put down a resolution on it. Non-binding, of course.