Lockdown tensions boil over in the Dáil

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Political anxiety overcame caretaker Taoiseach, Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar in the Dublin parliament this week when he suddenly lashed out at Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald, who he accused of being “two-faced”.

Relations between the parties have become increasingly bitter as Sinn Féin looks set to become the only major opposition party in the Leinster House parliament.

In an unexpected outburst, Mr Varadkar attacked Sinn Féin’s socialist credentials over the party’s approach to those suffering financially during the Covid-19 crisis.

He said his government had done more to support the newly unemployed than the Stormont administration in Belfast. He contrasted the €350 weekly payment available in the 26 Counties to the £100 (€114) allowance north of the border, where Sinn Féin’s Conor Murphy is currently Minister for Finance.

Leo Varadkar lectured Mary Lou McDonald for being “party political” over the crisis after she pointedly called for Varadkar to rule out any suggestion of a reduction in the €350 payment.

“What she said was so two-faced and so fundamentally dishonest”, he declared.

He said that the in the North, Sinn Féin Ministers “hand out food parcels and boast about it on Facebook” instead of raising incomes. He was speaking in reference to the practice of some Sinn Féin politicians to distribute essential items to the elderly, a volunteer effort ironically joined recently by Fine Gael’s own housing Minister, Eoghan Murphy.

Varadkar said it was reminiscent to him “of Donald Trump handing out toilet rolls after the hurricane hit the islands in the Caribbean.” And he went on to say don’t “blame the Tories” and be grateful for “London’s money” -- in reference to the complaint that welfare rates in the Six Counties are set by the budgetary impositions of the British government.

Although clearly shocked by the attack, Ms McDonald hit back, saying she was “very proud” of the community work Sinn Féin activists do across the Ireland. “And it’s not just in the North where people are running meals on wheels and bringing packages to people who are struggling,” she noted.

Varadkar’s tirade may have been motivated by a controversy over photos of his cordon bleu dining uploaded to the internet by Sinn Féin’s Housing spokesperson, Eoin Ó Broin. In the sharpest recession in the history of state, with a quarter of the workforce now suddenly unemployed, his conspicuous consumption appeared incongruous.

Despite his own tweet this week that “criticising, questioning and lampooning of those in power is healthy and should never be shut down”, Ó Broin’s supporters responded to criticism of the pics with aggressive internet “pile-ons”, an abusive and bullying social media tactic. Varadkar has previously pointed to the tactic as one of the reasons his party refuses to consider Sinn Féin as a coalition partner.

Ó Broin’s comment was itself in support of a cutting impression of Varadkar by satirist Oliver Callan, which is understood to have enraged Fine Gael. It poked fun at the Taoiseach’s vacant responses to questions over his plan to end the lockdown on RTE’s Late Late Show.

Relations between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin have been deteriorating since well before the February election, when Varadkar comprehensively ruled out the party as a coalition partner. It now appears almost certain that a government will be formed next month between Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and the Green Party.

Teams from the three parties this week finally began formal negotiations of a program for government which should see the three leaders -- Varadkar, Fianna Fail’s Micheal Martin and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan -- rotate the position of Taoiseach.

Sinn Féin TD for Cavan/Monaghan Matt Carthy said the potential new coalition “will not deliver the change that people voted for in February’s general election”.

But a left-leaning government including Sinn Féin could yet be possible if it re-enters talks with smaller parties, according to People Before Profit TD.

Speaking at Leinster House on Wednesday, he said: “Efforts to establish a left minority government went on pause during the Covid-19 crisis.

“We think it is now urgent to challenge the inevitable return to power of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.”

“We had an overwhelming historic demand for an alternative to Fianna Fail and Fine Gael on February 8 and I think, in the aftermath of the public health emergency, it is even more important to have an alternative to the failed policies that left us with a huge crisis in health, housing and deepening inequalities in Irish society.”

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