A warning rings for Government
DR JAMES Reilly, Minister for Health and deputy leader of Fine Gael, was never likely to fall on the sword of his junior minister, Róisín Shortall. On Wednesday, Ms Shortall fell on her own sword, and resigned. It was the honourable, indeed the only, decision she could take in the circumstances.
A political relationship between Ministers that deteriorates to the point of irretrievable breakdown cannot be long sustained. However for Ms Shortall, her resignation – given her diminished credibility – came too late to confer martyr status; or indeed to inflict irreparable political damage on the Coalition.
Her departure quickly followed her vote of confidence in Dr Reilly last week, in whom she had shown no public confidence over many months. For the Government, and Labour in particular, this is the latest embarrassing setback in recent weeks: the mishandling of public service allowances by Minister for Public Expenditure, Brendan Howlin, being the most significant.
Ms Shortall’s reason for quitting lay with her failure, as minister of state for primary healthcare, to win sufficient political support to implement reforms in her area of responsibility. That failure can be taken as a direct criticism of her political boss, and an implicit rebuke to her ministerial colleagues who, in this battle of political wills, unsurprisingly sided with Dr Reilly. Decisions on health, she said in her brief resignation statement, should “be made in the public interest based on health need and not driven by other concerns”. Ms Shortall, loosely translated, clearly meant Dr Reilly, in selecting two primary care centres – Swords and Balbriggan – in his Dáil constituency, was placing private above public interest. Both centres had failed to meet the original criteria for selection. Dr Reilly’s Cabinet colleague Leo Varadkar conceded it looked like stroke politics. Undoubtedly, it was. So far no Minister has pressed him to explain how the additional 15 care centres were selected: something Ms Shortall – not to mention the taxpaying public – are entitled to know. Ethics matter too.
For Labour, the pressures of governing in a time of austerity are taking their toll. Already two junior ministers have resigned and two backbenchers have lost the party whip since the Coalition was formed. Such a high attrition rate must greatly concern Eamon Gilmore as leader, and raise questions about the Coalition’s stability. The next budget presents the Government with its greatest economic challenge yet when it must raise €3.5 billion through further austerity measures. So far the political and personnel management skills of both Taoiseach and Tánaiste have been poor. The deteriorating relationship between the Minister and his junior minister, though publicly apparent for months, nevertheless passed – it seems – without effective intervention by Mr Kenny or Mr Gilmore. Ms Shortall’s principled departure on a concern to ensure healthcare centres are located where most needed provides a new focus for backbench discontent. It represents – as former Labour junior minister Willie Penrose, who resigned last year, said yesterday – a “warning shot” to the Government.