THE space-time continuum was altered when a day trip to Dáil Éireann lasted 26 rather than your typical 24-hour day.
There is no point in me complaining about a 1.30am start on Thursday morning and not getting home until 3.30am on Friday morning when you consider that West Cork’s first female TD, Margaret Murphy O’Mahony (FF), Michael Collins (Ind), and the returned Fine Gael TD, Jim Daly (FG) keep equally ridiculous hours.
Michael – who gladly gave The Southern Star a seat on his bus – had been in Dublin on Wednesday, March 9th to conduct meetings with other independents and actually didn’t get home until 12.30am on Thursday, which gave him just enough time to close his eyes and then get up and get ready for the return trip to Dublin.
‘I could have stayed in Dublin. Of course I could have, but the whole point in taking a busload of supporters to the first day of the 32nd Dáil is to be with them and to thank them for all their work,’ said Michael.
Cork is the biggest county in the country so TDs, particularly those in the western side of the constituency, have to drive for an hour or two before they are even on the road to Dublin.
There is no getting away from the fact that it is a long journey. And, for a moment – at around 9pm on Thursday night when Michael’s supporters and bus drivers were having a last minute bite to eat in Buswells’ Bar – I felt I might go postal (a nod there to 1916).
At the time I was mulling over the fact that I had a hair appointment at 9.30am and a beauty salon appointment at noon. I know how the ‘Oh, deary me, I have a hair and beauty appointment’ line might sound, but to be fair I was more worried about missing them and mucking up the salons’ schedules because time, after all, is money.
So, you can imagine my chagrin when Ellen Logan, my bus buddy, happened to mention that Michael Collins – who would be the last out of the bus at around 4am – would have to be up, washed and dressed and at his constituency office in Kinsale at 11am on Friday.
Even Ellen – who, like the other community volunteers on that particular bus, is involved in everything – had several much more worthy missions pencilled in for the day ahead. So, I relaxed. And we got giddy. Very giddy. It’s true that tiredness can resemble intoxication.
Time and how it is used seemed to be a theme on the day, especially when talking to Jim Daly who kindly arranged a multi-pass that gave “The Southern Star” access to Leinster House, the new office block for TDs, and Government buildings which is connected via a really cool sky-bridge. We walked the corridors of power – including the highly-stylised black and white corridor where the Taoiseach and all of the VIP ministers have their offices.
It was not Jim’s intention to monopolise my time. He was conscious of the fact that it was a monumental day for Michael and Margaret, and their respective families, and that their limited number of passes would be needed for family members. He was merely being ‘mein host.’
Outside the Dáil gates, my work consisted of posting to social media, conducting a few brief interviews on the iPhone, sending a rash of tweets to Twitter, and a few hasty updates on Facebook.
It was the same drill inside the black gates – point, clink, upload – only it felt different. Inside, there were just the TDs, their families and the media. Fewer still actually made it inside Leinster House and I have to acknowledge that the first thought that crossed my mind when I stepped into the high-vaulted hallway and onto the plush blue carpeting was: ‘I get it.’
Dire warnings were issued as we entered the public gallery NOT to use our mobile phones. There was some sense of decorum, but that went out the window as Margaret Murphy O’Mahony and I exchanged giddy schoolgirl waves. Even Jim, from across the chamber, gave a similarly effusive wave.
From the vantage point of the public gallery, it was immediately obvious that the 30% quota for female candidates standing for the 32nd Dáil had paid dividends and that 20% of the seats had been taken by women – a figure that will clearly increase as the quota increases next time out – to 40%, and 50% after that.
I was fortunate to be seated alongside Anna, who conducts tours of the Dáil. She was enthusiastic about the fact that this particular crop of TDs are in unprecedented territory, as well as the fact that the Ceann Comhairle – the Dáil chairman – would be elected by secret ballot for the first time.
‘It is a rare day that you will see every seat in the chamber filled,’ she said. ‘When you bring in groups and there are just three or four TDs in the chamber it must be disheartening for them. They want to see action, and this is action.’
The start of proceedings on Thursday, March 10th – the election of Fianna Fáil’s Seán Ó Fearghaíl as Ceann Comhairle – was a civilised affair. It allowed people a break from around 11am until 2.30pm. Some adjourned to the Dáil canteen, others to the more formal restaurant, and some went to the Dáil bar.
In my imagination, the Dáil bar was a huge cavernous place where men – slightly the worse for drink – stood, with their white shirtsleeves rolled up, about ten deep at the counter. But it was not like that at all. In fact, it is all rather elegant in varying shades of Persian blue. And black coffee – rather than bubbly or the black stuff – seemed to be the order of the day.
Once again, there was a sense of stupefaction here. As I was tweeting, I turned to one Government minister and said: ‘How do you spell Leinster?’ Of course, I excused myself saying I was having a senior moment. The minister, who shall remain nameless, said: ‘Tell me about it. I just tweeted that I was going to the Dole.’ Fatigue and spell check have a lot to answer for.
During the break, I went walkabout and had to ask Darren Hourihane, Jim’s parliamentary assistant, what the noise was. It was a sound you’d associate with TV programmes about submarines and the urgency of ‘dive, dive, dive.’ Darren said it was an automated bell that would ring continuously for six minutes to notify the TDs that they had to be back in the Dáil for the vote.
I also didn’t know that they lock the doors of the Dáil when the actual vote is taking place and that since the 1980s they have also started locking the press gallery because some TDs made their way in through the pressroom and risked the 20ft drop into the tiered Dáil chamber rather than miss a vote!
As the day wore on, the protests about Irish Water outside the gates of Leinster House grew larger and more vociferous. And inside? Well, anyone who followed it live on TV will be aware that it became increasingly fractious and worrying in terms of the formation of a new Government or indeed its lifespan.
Jim Daly expressed a more optimistic point of view: ‘The latest election has changed things and people are fascinated by it, which has to be good for society because more people are taking an interest in politics.’
The Fine Gael TD, who was first elected in 2011, said he is aware that when people see Dáil debates on the news they see fifteen seconds of people tearing shreds off each other, or a near empty chamber.
‘That fifteen second clip is the impression people have of the business of the Dáil on the day. The empty seats is a particular bugbear, but the Dáil could be sitting for 12 hours and it wouldn’t make sense for 158 TDs to sit there all day.
‘A lot of the Dáil is theatre,’ he said. ‘The real work is done in parliamentary, or committee, meetings but people don’t get to see that.’
Jim admitted that during the election his 10-year old son, Conor, told him: ‘I hope you lose.’ Jim said he knows where Conor is coming from. Because as great as his job is, serving the constituents of Cork South West, the biggest challenge is the impact it has on family life.
‘I have a wife, Virge, and six kids under the age of 13. I am out all day on a Monday and come home late on a Monday night, only to depart early on Tuesday morning for the Dáil and, realistically, it is Friday before I see my wife and children again.
‘Virge is a powerhouse. I couldn’t do it without her. She is a super organised and efficient lady. Her family in Estonia have a very strong appreciation of politics and value their own independence because it’s a State that has been taken over numerous times by other countries.
‘The work is not exhausting,’ said Jim. ‘You do put in horrendously long days but you get energy from it. The only thing that’s tiring is all the travelling.
‘The job does mould you. You become less sensitive to abuse from people. You develop a thick skin.’ He did, however, admit that the criticism he finds toughest to take is the “We never see you around” line.
‘People forget that you have gone from being a councillor who gets to spend seven nights in his bed at home, to spending three or four nights a week in Dublin, and the weekends in West Cork, trying to represent a huge constituency.’
But when all is said and done, Jim said he knows: ‘In this job, you are helping people to get what they are entitled to, and there is great satisfaction in that.’