Analysis: If this is what’s in public, what is going on behind closed doors? 

Analysis: If this is what’s in public, what is going on behind closed doors? 

Taoiseach Micheál Martin on his way Government Buildings in Dublin to address the nation. JULIEN BEHAL Photography-

They say a week is a long time in politics. This Government is different though. With this Government, a day is a long time.

Will the same cabinet ministers be in place from morning to evening on any given day at this stage? Will we be in lockdown Level 5 overnight? How many insider leaks will there be today?

The answer to these, and so many other questions asked about this Government is simply, who knows? At this stage though there are three things in life that are certain: death, taxes and government leaks.

This government is a contradiction of itself at the moment. Considering the lack of communication coming from those at the top, there’s a lot of information finding its way into the public domain.

There are cabinet ministers, not to mind opposition TDs, discovering what’s going on in the building they're based in by watching the news or scrolling on Twitter.

Sinn Féin’s Cork North Central representative Thomas Gould said that he was finding out alongside the public what was going on in his own workplace.

“These are very serious issues we’re dealing with,” he said, regarding the Covid-19 pandemic, “and I’m reading in The Echo or watching RTÉ news to find out what’s happening, and I’m a TD. The Government aren’t liaising with us and other parties,” he said.

He condemned the fact that cabinet and public health decisions were being relayed through media outlets: “We should be getting a proper briefing.” 

This week's events kicked off on Sunday night, when a letter from the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) recommending that Ireland be moved to Level 5 Covid-19 restrictions was leaked to the media. Where did it come from? Well, no one has admitted to that yet.

In Happier Days - reports claim a rift is opening between NPHET and Government following this week's disagreement over Level 5 restrictions. Tanaiste Leo Varadkar has stated that NPHETs plan was not thought through. Photo: Sam Boal/
In Happier Days - reports claim a rift is opening between NPHET and Government following this week's disagreement over Level 5 restrictions. Tanaiste Leo Varadkar has stated that NPHETs plan was not thought through. Photo: Sam Boal/

Regardless, it caused plenty of anxiety and worry among the general population, not to mention business owners, but instead of any clarity in the following hours, it instead grew to become a political point-scoring opportunity.

Following that letter leak on Sunday, the cabinet voted not to accept the advice, and instead decided to move the entire country to Level 3 restrictions, potentially prolonging the inevitable.

Nearly 24 hours after that Nphet recommendation leaked, a formal announcement was finally made live on TV by Taoiseach Micheál Martin on where the country was headed. However, he did not take questions.

Following a bit of two-ing and fro-ing, a press conference was set up after the Taoiseach’s announcement, but there was no Taoiseach, Tánaiste or Chief Medical Officer (CMO) there. 

I can’t account for the Taoiseach or CMOs whereabouts on Monday night, but the Tánaiste was on another channel at the same time as the press conference, digging the boot into Nphet and Dr Tony Holohan, saying their advice wasn’t “thought through.” The decision “landed on us on a Sunday night as a surprise and without consultation,” he said on RTÉs Claire Byrne Live.

“I have confidence in Nphet to dispense public health advice, but that is what they do,” he said, adding that none of the people involved would “have faced being on the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) benefit, none of them would have to tell somebody that they are losing their job, and none of them would have to shutter a business for the last time” if the country went into full lockdown.

Solo runs by one of the most senior politicians when we’re all supposed to be ‘in this together’ is not the way to get the public on side.

Solidarity TD Mick Barry told The Echo he feels the “attack” on the CMO was wrong.

“I also think the Government are taking a big risk by rejecting the public health advice. I hope we don't live to regret that.

“It's galling that the country may have to be put into stronger lockdowns this winter in large measure because of the failures of successive Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael-led Governments to build a strong Public Health Service,” he said.

Health Minister Stephen Donnelly was subsequently forced to make a Dáil statement on Thursday evening on the debacle, and why so many top politicians weren’t knocked for six when the Level 5 recommendation was leaked.

Mr Donnelly denied that he or anyone associated with him leaked Nphet’s advice.

He said that he and Dr Tony Holohan had discussed the possibility of moving to Level 4 Covid-19 restrictions before the Nphet meeting last Sunday. He also said the Taoiseach was kept informed that a Nphet meeting was taking place, and again when Level 5 restrictions were advised.

The Tánaiste and some Government ministers, meanwhile, claim they were not made aware of the advice until Sunday evening. Mr Varadkar also said in the Dáil that if it was thought that was being recommended, the Government would have called an emergency meeting.

"We need to move on from this. It shouldn't be the Government versus Nphet," he added, and he also made clear during the week that he and the CMO have had a conversation since his appearance on Claire Byrne Live.

For his part, Dr Holohan said earlier this week that he had a long-standing and good relationship with the Fine Gael leader.

However, the fact that some of the most important people in our country are having to clarify that they are working together and not against each other at the same time global pandemic is raging is astounding. Cohesion, clarity and a bit of cop-on would go a long way at a time like this.

The public would respond much better to the guidelines being imposed if they felt they were being implemented clearly and for the right reasons. As it stands, businesses have been left out in the cold, quite literally, and those who are supposed to be guiding everyone though seem to be more interested in undermining each other at every possible opportunity.

Coalition Governments are a strange beast. The parties involved don’t necessarily agree with each other or even like each other but usually they, at the very least, pretend to. This one seems to have an added bite, though.

There have been more solo runs during the short lifetime of this Government than I’ve ever seen in a hurling match. Leo Varadkar’s comments on Claire Byrne Live were just another example of the issues that have been boiling over.

That’s before we even mention Golfgate, two agriculture Ministers resigning, the Leaving Cert debacle, and the multitude of leaks from the cabinet and parliamentary party meetings, to highlight just a few.

If this is what’s in public, what is going on behind closed doors?

When Micheál Martin took up the mantle to lead the country, even during a pandemic, I refuse to believe that he thought things could go this far off of the tracks.

A Fianna Fáil source told The Echo that “there were about two weeks where things had settled and people (in the party) were relatively happy, but then obviously the Leaving Cert kicked off again and then this news on Sunday night.

“There’s just a sense of being embattled at the minute. Not just from a Fianna Fáil perspective but Government in general. The green jersey that the opposition were purporting to wear, I think, has well and truly been thrown in the fire at this stage.” 

The source went on to say that Leo Varadkar’s comments on Nphet’s advice looked to be potentially ego-driven, but were “his business” despite being “OTT” and “melodramatic”.

The source added that despite not everyone being happy with the leadership of the party at the moment, nothing will change for the foreseeable future.

The spiralling Covid crisis compounded by Brexit were highlighted as the two of the reasons Micheál Martin won’t be challenged for the position, adding that a change in leadership would also be “destabilizing”.

“How can you be seen to play musical chairs in the middle of all that? You can’t.

“That’s not to say 100% that we all have complete faith either.”

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