PJ Cunningham’s look back at the past week in Irish politics.
Governments normally look forward to escaping public scrutiny during the summer recess – but the opposite is happening for Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his Cabinet.
Beef, Broadband and Maria Bailey (again) are giving the opposition Fianna Fail party – which keeps his Fine Gael government in office – plenty of ammunition to fire at him ahead of the expected election.
Big farmers and beef producers, traditionally FG supporters, are incensed at last weekend’s EU-Mercosur trade deal.
It opens up the EU market to South American imports, which the Irish Farmers Association (IFA) say would “decimate the Irish beef Industry.”
Agri-producers are already facing the prospect of serious reductions in exports to the UK in the event of a ‘No Deal’ hard Brexit.
In Brussels on Sunday, at a meeting of EU heads of government, Mr Varadkar said there is little that Ireland can do to block the EU agreement.
In mitigation, he pointed out it is two years away and in the meantime, an assessment of its impact on the Irish economy would be carried out.
If that assessment is negative Ireland will vote against it, he said.
His government has also been on the backfoot over the cost of its preferred, and controversial, rural broadband scheme.
The French-owned telecom company eir, formerly Eircom, which has a monopoly in Ireland, said it could roll out rural broadband for €1 billion instead of the €2.7 billion the government has already committed to its preferred consortium, National Broadband Ireland, to deliver the service.
The price quoted by eir – majority-owned by Fench telecoms billionaire Xavier Niel since last year – may be open to debate.
But it prompted an excitable response by junior minister Damien English who insisted that re-opening the tender would push everything back by up to five years.
“Eir were part of this bidding process. At that stage about a year ago their bid was in or around €2.7bn,” he said.
He went on: “What we have to analyse is what’s the big difference here, but also we have to find out is it Apples and Oranges? Are they proposing the exact same thing as the National Broadband Plan? I don’t believe they are but we have to analyse that.”
But perhaps the biggest problem confronting Mr Varadkar is that Maria Bailey personal injury case which is proving to be an on-going embarrassment for Fine Gael.
Some of the older party members wanted senior counsel David Kennedy’s internal report made public to avoid dirt being thrown later in the year during by-elections and/or a general election.
Revelations about FG TD Bailey’s compensation lawsuit against – she sought substantial damages from a hotel after she fell from a swing while reaching for a bottle of alcohol – came in the middle of a public debate about Ireland’s growing compensation claims culture.
Fine Gael had tried to make the running on the issue of insurance reform but this controversy in the closing days of the local election campaign blew up in their face when the issues were brought up on doorsteps.
Further humiliation followed for the party when Dun Laoghaire TD Bailey, the chair of the Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government, gave her infamous ‘car crash’ radio interview as well as revelations that she achieved a respectable time in a challenging road race when she was supposedly incapacitated by her ‘injuries’.
Party canvassers reported getting a lot of grief about her on doorsteps during May’s local government and European Parliament election campaigns.
It led to the TD quietly withdrawing her lawsuit and claim for compensation.
Mr Varadkar ordered an internal inquiry and suggested the party’s focus should be on finding the person who originally blew the whistle on Ms Bailey.
Mr Varadkar’s decision to keep the report secret and away from public eyes is widely seen as out of touch with the public mood and poor judgement by a Taoiseach whom some believe may be losing his Teflon coating.
Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin insists the Irish public has a right to know what actually happened.
Of course, it didn’t help that while all this was unfolding the founder of the Supermacs fast food company, Pat McDonagh, a well-known critic of Ireland’s ‘compensation culture’, said his firm has 73 personal injury claims pending.
He said they will contest and defend themselves against any exaggerated or bogus claims – such as the one he posted on social media in which a customer set up a ‘fall’ in the toilets of one of his branches.
Mr McDonagh said such claims should not even get as far as the courts because even if his company wins, it actually loses because of the high legal costs involved.
He said that were it not for the fact he has installed CCTV in branches his insurance company would have insisted on settling and paying out on claims.
“We are safeguarding our own business. The camera is never in a compromising position. There is absolutely no fear of anyone’s privacy being violated. The videotapes are there to act as a deterrent,” he said.
Mr McDonagh stressed that, ultimately, it is taxpayers who end up paying for ‘compo culture’, a position once strongly held by the Fine Gael party – if not all its TDs.
The party’s position is now less clear and muddied even further by the decision to keep the report on one of its own TD’s compensation claim secret and away from taxpayers and voters.