THE escalator ferrying Micheál Martin to the foyer zig zagged its way from the fifth floor at snail-like pace.
t was a long way down from the auditorium in Dublin’s Convention centre, but as they skyline of the city cascaded through the glass façade in the background, it was an opportunity for the man of the moment to take it all in.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin.
He looked like he might explode with joy.
On the ground floor, suitably socially distanced, members of the Fianna Fáil party had gathered, heads tilted towards the heavens at the man gliding down from above.
One by one, they started to clap and cheer, sending a rapturous applause up through the central atrium of the building.
He had waited longer than Liverpool’s wait for a league title, noted one Independent TD, but regardless, he got there
Mr Martin peered over the handrail and looked down, as if surprised, then a smile flickered across his face.
Finally, after 31 years in politics, his time had finally come. He had waited longer than Liverpool’s wait for a league title, noted one Independent TD, but regardless, he got there.
When he finally arrived to greet his colleagues there could be no hugs or handshakes. No slaps on the back or jubilant huddles. These were extraordinary times and as the new Taoiseach ran the gauntlet of two metre-spaced well-wishers and strategically placed sanitizer stations, it was a reminder that this was a day like no other.
It was a modern-day setting for a modern-day marriage
Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, the Dáil had assembled in the Convention Centre, on the banks of the River Liffey in Dublin, to allow for social distancing. Along with the politicians, Oireachtas staff, including ushers and clerks, had decamped from the familiar surrounds of Leinster house, the traditional seat of power, to the slicker, more cosmopolitan surrounds of the purpose-built event venue.
A modern-day setting for a modern-day marriage.
In a nod perhaps to the Greens, the venue is recognised as the first carbon neutral constructed convention centre in the world. On the downside, it’s location overlooking the pollution plagued Liffey may not have been ideal.
Earlier that day, as the rain pelted down on the city’s streets, the sense of anticipation inside was palpable. There was a somewhat muted atmosphere, given the social distancing, but there was a great sense of excitement in the air. Photographs in the foyer. Everyone tuned out in their finest. Smiles all round.
Fianna Fáil TD Dara Calleary was one of the first to arrive, bolting through the entrance with a beaming smile. After a quick dart of sanitzer, it was on to the first escalator, one of eight that led to the auditorium. His eagerness to get to his destination, and up the escalator at speed, caught the attention of a staff member manning the crowds.
“Just wait until the person in front is past the yellow dot please,” she said, willing him to keep his distance.
A sullen looking Charlie Flanagan, who had arrived, would unwittingly make the same mistake.
“Can you just wait please,” pleaded the staff member.
Fianna Fáil’s Anne Rabbitte was a vison in red, greeting everyone with an animated hello as she worked the foyer. Pearse Doherty emerged from the canteen, scanning the crowds from a distance and quietly taking in the scene.
True to form, Eamon Ryan arrived on his bicycle, sporting a wet-look coif due to the downpour. Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar were among the last to show, greeting well-wishers and press in the foyer before making their way to the fifth floor. Micheál had chosen a blue tie for the occasion, while Leo had gone for green.
The different parties gathered in the chamber for the 10:30am start.
Danny Healy Rae, who had already remarked that the escalators were too slow, wasn’t happy with the “new normal” in the chamber. He wanted to move seat, he told an usher, because the location of current one wasn’t to his liking.
“It’s like the first day of school for some of them,” remarked a bystander.
“The ruler might come out.”
With a capacity to hold 2,000, the scene inside the auditorium, where 160 TDs had gathered to vote, was in itself a sight to behold. The distance between members, some three or four seats apart, didn’t lend itself to the usual cajoling and chattering witnessed in Leinster House.
As each member slipped into the steeply tiered seating with cushioned chairs that snap when standing, comparisons were made to the cinema. With his eyes fixed on the big screen positioned on stage, Leo Varadkar resembled a young child at a Saturday matinee. The popcorn never arrived.
Green party TD Catherine Martin and her Dáil colleague and husband Francis Noel Duffy sat snuggly together up near the front, exempt from distancing rules because they are from the same household. Others struggled to adjust to the isolation of the unfamiliar setting.
“There’s being on the backbenches and there’s being on the back benches. Should have brought my binoculars.” Tweeted Fianna Fáil TD Christopher O’Sullivan.
The House rose for the prayer.
Micheál Martin glanced up at the distinguished visitors gallery, a place usually filled with family. None of that was possible today due to the pandemic and the seats were mostly empty.
The nomination speeches began.
Fianna Fáil’s Norma Foley nominated Mr Martin.
“Deputy Michael Martin has the record, the talent and the tenacity we need to lead this new government and to sever all the people of our country with distinction,” she said.
Mr Martin acknowledged her with a knowing nod.
In a blistering commentary of Sinn Fein’s nomination for Mary Lou McDonald to be Taoiseach, Labour’s Alan Kelly rounded on the party’s pre-election manifesto.
“It was a Late Late show giveaway,” he said. “Something for everyone in the audience.”
The remark drew a smile from Pearse Doherty, who was watching on intently from the third row.
In an apt reference, given the cinema-style setting, Mr Kelly drew chuckles from the chamber with his remarks about Mr Varadkar’s movie tastes.
“We all know the outgoing Taoiseach loves his films,” he said.
Mr Kelly said Mr Varadkar previously compared Mr Martin to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in Total Recall with “alternative memories planted in his brain” and “a fairy tale about his record in Health and Foreign Affairs”.
A wave of laughter rippled over the chamber. Mr Kelly smiled sweetly. Leo nodded.
The was more laughter in the chamber when Danny Healy-Rae wished Mr Martin and the incoming Government well “on behalf of the Healy-Rae party”.
In response the Ceann Comhairle seemed more than amused: “It’s interesting to note that not only are we getting a new government, but we are also getting a new party.”
After the votes were cast and Micheál Martin was announced as Taoiseach, he took to his feet with a look of pride.
With the end of Civil War politics, a new normal began in extraordinary times
He made his first speech as Taoiseach. Brief, but well received.
He acknowledged the current pandemic and that some coronavirus restrictions will remain in place for some time and “no one can say today when we will return to something close to normality”.
He added: “To be elected to serve as Taoiseach of a free republic is one of the greatest honours which anyone can receive.”
Yesterday, with the end of Civil War politics, a new normal began in extraordinary times.
There was applause and a standing ovation when the result of the vote was announced and Mr Martin could finally make his way to the Phoenix Park.
A short time later he was driven from the Convention centre, leaving behind the tumult of an extraordinary few hours while those left behind clogged up the canteen and awaited their fate.
Back on the fifth floor, the auditorium had cleared.
“Everyone will have to leave I’m afraid,” declared an usher.
“This entire place has to be sanitized before the next sitting.”
Extraordinary times indeed.
Source: Irish News