Billy Kelleher: no laughing matter

TRADE minister Billy Kelleher has been attacked for "making light" of Ireland's economic woes during a business conference.

Kelleher was addressing 120 business leaders in the southeast at the National Enterprise Conference in Clonmel when he was accused of inappropriate conduct.

Waterford Chamber of Commerce chief executive Michael Garland told the Sunday Tribune he was greatly angered by the minister's conduct after he told an anecdote on the difference between optimism and pessimism to his audience. "I don't feel it's appropriate for him to tell jokes here. These were 120 people struggling," Garland said, adding that the conference took place on the eve of the IMF's arrival in Ireland.

He briefly confronted the minister from the floor during a questions-and-answers session but said he was unable to speak to him directly afterwards because the minister had left the venue.

"I would have said I found it highly inappropriate to be telling jokes and I didn't come here to be amused," he said. "I came here to listen to a senior member of government and what was going to be done to get this country on its feet."

Kelleher said he was surprised by the remarks. He said the offending 'joke' was merely an amusing anecdote at the end of his speech.

"If he is trying to make out that I just got up on stage and told a few jokes, that is not the case," he said. "If he has a problem with my speech then he obviously wasn't listening to it because I spoke for a long time on a lot of issues. Everyone was quite complimentary about my contribution and I was clear about us having to gain confidence as a people and that this was essential to the economy."

The joke itself was about two sons, one optimistic, the other pessimistic. The pessimist received a room full of Christmas presents but was angry because his room was too cluttered. The optimist was given a room full of manure but was happy because he sensed there must have been a pony nearby.

However, Garland said that the business community in Waterford city had been toiling hard to promote commercial activity – by introducing a new website, a marketing campaign and an 'ambassador programme' which would train people to spot tourists and explain local history to them – and that the minister's conduct was not in keeping with this earnest approach.