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Liam Fay: Why does no one dare say Coughlan is out of her depth?

February 8, 2009

Famously foul-mouthed in private, the tanaiste is struggling to remain sweet-tongued as she flounders as minister for enterprise, trade and employment

Famously foul-mouthed in private, Mary Coughlan is clearly struggling with the job of being sweet-tongued in public. The resulting inner tension may partly explain the garbled blather that emerges when the tanaiste makes one of her increasingly strange TV appearances.

Central to the indigestible waffle that has become her trademark is the relentless use of drab platitudes and leaden jargon. It’s almost as if she resorts to these meaningless mantras to evade the more colourfully expressive words that apparently spring naturally to her lips. Making reassuring sounds rather than coherent sense appears to be her priority.

It doesn’t help that her grasp of detail is atrocious. When Joan Burton took the government to task on the public finances in the Dail last week, the Labour deputy reminded Coughlan that she had been unable to discuss exchequer figures the previous day “because you were so unknowledgeable about the state of the public finances . . . ”

A fuming tanaiste seemed on the verge of turning the air blue before settling for a cleanly-worded if no less unparliamentary threat: “You just watch it now.”

Coughlan’s floundering performances are not incidental matters. As minister for enterprise, trade and employment at a time when the country is historically low on all three commodities, she has become the government’s most important minister. Her words matter, so it’s all the more infuriating that we can’t make out what she’s on about half the time.

Remarkably, however, media and opposition criticism of Coughlan has been muted. When Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar described her last year as “Ireland’s Sarah Palin”, he was roundly scolded for his recourse to sexist stereotype. Since then, there’s been notable reluctance, especially among male commentators and TDs, to acknowledge the obvious fact that Coughlan was promoted several rungs above her competence level. Off the record, Fianna Fail backbenchers concede that she was appointed tanaiste largely because she’s female. Far from being an obstacle to her advancement, her gender has proven to be her greatest asset. Now that she’s hopelessly out of her depth, it should not be used as a protective shield to shelter her from accountability.

If anything, Coughlan has benefited from far too much special pleading on her behalf. For instance, several pundits complained that much of the media had responded to her appointment as tanaiste by analysing her dress sense and dieting regime. Yet Coughlan had been promoted for her supposedly superior presentational flair. If Brian Cowen was the clever political conjuror his champions initially claimed him to be, Coughlan was to be his glamorous assistant.

First elected to the Dail in 1987, following the death of her TD father Cathal, she served a lengthy backbench apprenticeship without doing anything memorably awful or noticeably valuable. It was for geographical and gender-balancing reasons that Bertie Ahern made her a junior arts minister in 2001.

The position afforded few opportunities, but the dearth of talented female parliamentarians in Fianna Fail meant Ahern chose her to front the government’s 2001 abortion referendum campaign. Her big moment was a Late Late Show debate when she faced down some of the opposition’s most articulate liberal campaigners and was deemed the victor. A year later, Ahern upgraded her to cabinet.

Coughlan should feel as aggrieved as everybody else about the fact that she’s in over her head. Nothing in her background suggested she would have what it takes to be an imaginative employment minister in an era of spiralling unemployment. Even her reputation as an adroit media performer has clearly been overstated and is now enduring a humiliating collapse.

It’s in everybody’s interest, therefore, that Coughlan be given a less onerous portfolio as soon as possible. If she isn’t, the ability of voters to keep civil tongues in their heads will be sorely tested.

Fisherman Pat O’Donnell appears even more skilled at casting aspersions than casting nets. A strident opponent of Shell’s Corrib gas pipeline, he was inexplicably given space in The Irish Times last week to fling mud at volunteers with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) which recently accepted a €200,000 donation from Shell.

O’Donnell insinuated that the safety of some fishermen could now be jeopardised.

“If we are involved in an incident at sea and need the lifeboat, will the response time be the same if it is known that we have spoken out over Corrib?” he asked.

The RNLI will always throw a drowning man a lifeline. But there’s no reason why The Irish Times should do likewise for the far-fetched fantasies of a solitary crank who seems permanently at sea.

Romance goes off the rails

Love stories begin on public transport. This is the latest piece of dubious propaganda from the increasingly desperate anti-car industry. Lose Your Heart On The Dart is a forthcoming speed-dating event on the Connolly Station-Bray line which has been organised by Iarnrod Eireann and dating website

The Dart was obviously chosen as the appropriate vehicle for the exercise, as the last thing one associates with speed of any kind is a Dublin bus. However, organisers might have attracted more men if they’d staged the venture on the light rail system and therefore been able to advertise it as an opportunity to meet Luas women.

Ultimately, though, the event’s message is as misleading as a train timetable. Love stories may indeed begin on public transport but meaningful relationships can only advance within the privacy of a car. Fortunately, Iarnrod Eireann accepts this reality and facilitates it every day through an extremely popular initiative: park and ride.

Wrong hymn sheet, Senator

Senator Ronan Mullen, staunch defender of the faith and the indefensible, has been stoning sinners from his glasshouse again.

A former Catholic church spin doctor, the Monsignor (as he’s known to colleagues) reacted angrily on Wednesday to Senator Joe O’Toole saying that our Vatican ambassador should raise questions about Pope Benedict’s rehabilitation of Bishop Richard Williamson, a Holocaust denier.

Infuriated by laypeople’s inability to understand that some religious matters surpass mortal understanding, Mullen insisted Holocaust denial is not the issue. “I would encourage the ignorant to inform themselves before they deliver themselves irresponsibly of certain comments,” he trilled.

Mullen had barely sat down when the Vatican released a statement acknowledging Holocaust denial is indeed the issue and calling on Williamson to recant. Clearly Mullen should have informed himself before delivering himself irresponsibly of certain comments.

Ahern’s top job hopes are destined to Fail

Bertie Ahern can kiss his presidential ambitions goodbye. Even before publication of the Mahon report, Fianna Fail bigwigs are raising the price for his ticket to the Aras.

Senior party sources say that if he wants the 2011 presidential nomination, Ahern must help secure a third Fianna Fail seat in the forthcoming Dublin Central by-election.

Of course it will be almost impossible for a government candidate to win any by-election and the antipathy is unlikely to fade by 2011.

Last year, Fianna Fail cut Ahern loose. He might yet consider returning the favour.

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