‘As the Taoiseach called out his name, the Roscommon politician cast his eyes downwards and smiled slightly’

Paul Hickey’s eyewitness  Dail report  ‘Michael got the job – Environment and Local Government’. It was Terry Leyden, and it was Tuesday afternoon. I was standing awkwardly at the foot of the masterful stairs that lead up to the Dáil chamber shortly before Brian Cowen was due to reveal his junior Ministerial team, and I was wondering how I’d get into the visitors’ gallery when the 2006 Senator of the year appeared from nowhere and informed me of the impending appointment. Twenty minutes later, having received direction from the helpful Senator Leyden, I was safely ensconced in the gallery, and I had a bird’s-eye view of the chamber. Dáil Éireann was buzzing. Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore were attacking Brian Cowen about flaws in the HSE’s services for children.  Our new Taoiseach is not noted as a conciliator. He was taking no prisoners – and no responsibility – and he responded to one benign interruption by snarling, ‘When you’re Taoiseach you can answer the questions’. The debate was purely a sideshow, however, as all eyes were on the Fianna Fáil backbenches. Limerick TD Peter Power’s expression was a giveaway, as were the congratulatory handshakes that he was receiving from his colleagues.  Laois TD John Moloney, meanwhile, positioned himself strategically at the end of a row of seats, where he received hearty handshakes from his fellow TDs. The disappointment of sacked Cork Minister Michael Ahern was apparent too: he slid into a seat in the back row on his own and looked glumly at his fingers. Roscommon TDs Frank Feighan and Denis Naughten were both in their seats, and like their colleagues they were forensically assessing the body language on the Government benches. The House of Lord was full too: Miriam Lord and her fellow cynics filled the press box as they awaited the announcements. There was no space there for the provincial press, but I was more than happy to share the public gallery with a group of pensioners from Templemore, and with fifty students from Oynegate NS, Wexford. In all of this Michael Finneran was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps he was on the phone to his many close friends and supporters in Roscommon telling them of his appointment. Maybe he was ringing Paddy Kilduff to organise a lorry for the homecoming celebration on the Square in Roscommon! Or possibly he was in the Dáil bar, washing down a bowl of muesli with a quick pint of goats’ milk and a chaser of organic soda with his new boss, the Green party leader and Environment Minister John Gormley. At 4.35 pm he finally arrived in the chamber, and Denis Naughten and Frank Feighan sat up sharply. Mr. Finneran quietly sat in beside lonely Michael Ahern. They exchanged a handshake, and it was obvious that the Cork TD was congratulating a respected and popular colleague. Michael’s two Roscommon colleagues positively bristled! Cowen was still battling with Enda and Eamon, and up at the back of the National Legislature Michael Finneran sat silently with his thoughts. Was he enjoying the moment? He certainly should have been. Michael’s appointment is a singular honour for his family and for Roscommon. He is now one of just five Roscommon TDs to have served in Government, and he thus takes his place on a remarkable political pantheon.  It has been a long journey to Government rank for the gentleman of Roscommon politics. As he sat quietly at the top of Dáil Éireann and waited for the Taoiseach’s announcement of his appointment, was he reflecting on his steady rise through Fianna Fáil’s ranks since his election to Roscommon County Council 29 years ago? Was he thinking with pride about being Dysart’s first Minister? Was he looking forward to his tasks as Minister for Housing – one of the few Junior roles that has real importance? Or was he planning a deal with Health Minister Mary Harney: he’d allocate housing grants to her constituency if she’d change her mind about Roscommon Hospital? We may never know – Michael Finneran is not in the habit of giving the local media the inside track on stories and he has an excellent poker face. Finally, just after a quarter to five, Brian Cowen began to announce his Junior Ministerial team. The atmosphere was electric. Denis Naughten was sitting beside his FG colleague Dr. James Reilly. Denis had his pen in his hand, and he wrote down the names of the new Ministers as they were called out.  Frank Feighan was at the back of the Fine Gael benches, listening intently to the Taoiseach. Cowen listed off the names of the ‘super junior’ Ministers first. The names of the reappointed Ministers came next, and it took what seemed like an age for him to announce the new names. Tantalizingly, Mr. Finneran’s was the last of the 20 appointments to be announced.  Finally, at 4.49 pm on Tuesday the 13th of May 2008, An Taoiseach Brian Cowen TD announced the appointment of Michael Finneran TD as a Minister of State. ‘Michael Finneran is Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, with special responsibility for Housing, Urban Renewal, and Developing Areas,’ intoned the Offaly Taoiseach. Frank Feighan raised his eyebrows. Denis Naughten received a good-natured nudge from Dr. James Reilly. In the Press Gallery Sam Smyth and Mark Hennessy smiled at eachother. They probably had been betting on Mr. Finneran.  As the Taoiseach called out Minister Finneran’s name, the self-effacing Roscommon politician cast his eyes downwards and smiled slightly. Clare TD Timmy Dooley, who had clambered into the seat beside him just before the announcements, reached out his hand to congratulate his friend. There was a brief adjournment after the appointments, and colleagues swarmed around the new Minister. Cavan’s Anne Conlon, Meath’s Thomas Byrne, Tipperary’s Máire Hoctor, and Mayo’s Dara Calleary all congratulated Minister Finneran. Denis Naughten crossed the floor to wish his rival well. The pair exchanged a joke, and Denis returned to his seat. Frank Feighan was over next, and he shook Mr. Finneran’s hand before departing from the house. Michael sat there and looked pleased. Sligo’s Senator Geraldine Feeney called down from where she was standing at the railings around the edge of the chamber and winked at him. Donegal TD Niall Blaney, who had been tipped for promotion, shook Finneran’s hand vigorously. Martin Mansergh clapped him on the back. Galway East TD Michael Kitt was another well-wisher. At three minutes to five the Roscommon Minister got out of his seat on the backbench for the last time and walked out of the chamber with colleague Cyprian Brady. Education Minister and close personal friend Batt O’Keeffe met him at the bottom of the stairs, and the pair arranged to meet for a drink that evening.  The arrangement with Minister O’Keeffe was reportedly fulfilled at a popular Dublin hostelry that night, where Mrs. Betty Finneran and An Taoiseach Brian Cowen were among the revellers! Outside on the plinth Michael’s parliamentary assistant Geraldine Maloney was delighted, and Denis Naughten shook her hand warmly. Minister Finneran and the other Ministers of State posed with the Taoiseach for the photographers outside Government Buildings, and there was considerable banter. Michael stood quietly beside Trevor Sargent at the edge of the middle row, and allowed publicity-hungry colleagues like Conor Lenihan and Dick Roche to crowd around Brian Cowen at the front.  Then he was gone, off to check out his new office at Custom House, Dublin 1, and to meet his new staff. It has been a long road since the local elections in 1979, and since his election to the Seanad in 1989.  Victory is won not in miles, but in inches. Michael Finneran was clearly delighted, and so will many others be.