Coalition nerves starting to fray over Reilly affair
ANALYSIS:Apart from the debate about stroke politics, the Minister for Health is a lightning rod for public and party anger, writes STEPHEN COLLINS
A S EACH day passes, James Reilly is learning the truth of the maxim that politics is a cruel trade. He clearly intends to battle on but the unrelenting pressure will be difficult to withstand as time goes on, particularly as it appears to be taking a toll on the Government he serves.
The latest twist in the complex saga of the Balbriggan primary care centre does not appear particularly damaging in itself. If the Minister is right, then long-time Fine Gael member Séamus Murphy will not benefit from the project as the selected site is actually under the control of the National Asset Management Agency.
More importantly, Reilly is adamant that he had nothing to do with the decision by which the specific site in Balbriggan was chosen by the Health Service Executive for the development of a primary care unit.
As if the whole primary care centre saga was not complicated enough, further twists in the story, as it relates to the Balbriggan site, emerged during the Minister’s appearance in the Dáil to answer questions yesterday afternoon.
It seems that the Minister wrongly concluded that the Balbriggan site was selected by the HSE in 2010, during Mary Harney’s term as minister for health. Ruairí Quinn defended his Cabinet colleague on this basis later in the Dáil. That was not the case, however, and the site was selected while Reilly was in office, even though he had nothing to do with its selection.
All in all, it appears that the latest controversy is not what it seems and Opposition claims of cronyism on Reilly’s part in relation to the deal don’t seem to have a foundation. However, the fact that the controversy developed legs so quickly on a flimsy basis is a clear indication of how much trouble the Fine Gael deputy leader is in.
In every government, one minister gets targeted by the opposition and becomes the lightning rod for public anger. In this Coalition, Reilly has become the target both by virtue of his personality and the office he holds.
Every minister for health for the past two decades has been a sitting target for fierce criticism. It was not for nothing that Brian Cowen dubbed the Department of Health “Angola” because of the inevitability of unforeseen landmines going off at regular intervals.
As a medical doctor, with long-standing knowledge of the scene, Reilly of all people should not be surprised by the way he has been singled out for attack. On top of that, in opposition he gave Mary Harney no quarter day in and day out in the Dáil so he can hardly complain at the relentless criticism being directed at himself.
If the Minister is being subjected to unfair claims of cronyism, he remains vulnerable on the wider issue of why two towns in his constituency, Balbriggan and Swords, were among those added to the approved list of primary care centres.
The only conclusion is that Reilly was using his position to play constituency politics not only on his own behalf in North Dublin but also around the country where extra centres were added in vulnerable Fine Gael constituencies. This does not amount to the kind of corruption alleged by the Opposition. But it is deeply disappointing that the Government which promised to change the way politics was conducted in Ireland has succumbed to old-fashioned stroke politics.