Mary Lou’s performance easily bears repeating
IT was one of the most dramatic moments the Dáil has seen in quite a while. The Taoiseach and Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald had just been sparring across the chamber about AIB’s tax affairs.
The rancour between the pair had escalated until the Leas Ceann Comhairle tried to move the matter on and called an end to Taoiseach’s Questions. Mary Lou’s mic was switched off, but she wasn’t done.
So she stepped out of her seat and, instead of making her way up the steps behind her, she began to walk across the floor towards Leo. It was like a scene from an old western, where the saloon falls silent and the barman stops polishing glasses and the pianist ducks under the stool. This was Rooster Cogburn facing the Ned Pepper Gang in True Grit – what was she going to do? Walk across and lock the doors? This was Conor McGregor squaring up to Floyd Mayweather – what was she going to say, ‘Dance for me, boy’?
Instead, she loomed briefly over the Taoiseach, like Donald Trump bodychecking Hillary Clinton during the Presidential debates, and hissed something in his face. All we could hear was, ‘I’ll write to you...’, a sentence that has rarely packed such menace. A few minutes earlier, the Taoiseach had accused her of being over-rehearsed, which was a bit like Sir Laurence Olivier calling Dame Maggie Smith a bit of a ham.
Whatever about their earlier exchanges, though, this final act was definitely not in the script, and it made for gripping viewing. Here were two well-matched combatants coming from entirely different disciplines – think MMA versus Queensbury Rules, just with political ideologies instead of muscle, except this pair didn’t have to pretend to dislike each other. There’s always something slightly duplicitous about politicians who talk tough across the house and then repair for a few pints together in the Dáil bar, but you can tell that Mary Lou and Leo aren’t going to be cracking open a bottle of San Pellegrino any time soon.
They disagree fundamentally, and passionately, and sincerely and, unlike a lot of what passes for debate in the Dáil, it’s not just personal niggle. They have utterly opposing views about social issues, economics, politics, big business, the people who get up early and the people who have no incentive to leave their beds. They both put thought and effort into their contributions to Dáil debates: they’ve both perfected their delivery and timing and rhetorical flourishes, and they bring a level of engagement and box office watchability to Dáil business that we haven’t seen in some time. Grudge matches are always box office.
Mary Lou McDonald is the de facto leader of the Opposition, and one of the finest and most compelling performers in the Dáil. Like a lot of women, I’d support her in a heartbeat if she aligned herself with anyone other than Sinn Féin, because she’s exactly the sort of smart, quick-witted, take-no-prisoners role model that young politically aware women need – if only ‘take-no-prisoners’, when it comes to Sinn Féin’s history, wasn’t just a turn of phrase. She can articulate her position on any subject in a couple of well chosen and eminently quotable sentences, even when she hasn’t had a chance to practise them.
It’s ironic that the Taoiseach should consider it a slight to be accused of rehearsal, since he ably defended himself against the same charge during the leadership campaign. What’s the problem with putting some thought into what you’re going to say?
WE deserve the courtesy of preparation and properly constructed argument, rather than the drab wittering that often passes for debate in Leinster House. We deserve to have both positions thrashed out in coherent prose, not parroted in clichés. And everyone’s a winner – the more eloquent and engaging a politician’s debating style, the more attention their points receive. Until Leo and Mary Lou tangled last week, I didn’t know that AIB will be exempt from corporation tax for the next 20 years because of its losses during the financial crisis, even though the bank is now making a healthy profit. I didn’t know a thriving company would be contributing ‘zip, zilch, zero’ in tax for two more decades, until Mary Lou spelled it out.
Yet that’s precisely what Dáil debate is meant to be about, which is why it’s in all our interests to have debate worth staying awake for. And why, for any politician who fancies taking on Mary Lou, it’s worth his while getting up early to learn his lines.
Ex factor: Meghan Markle