Shortall resignation a distraction from bigger issues
There was a further constructive discussion later in the day between Minister for Finance Michael Noonan and his Fianna Fáil opposite number, Michael McGrath. Our political system was weighing up the implications of this serious setback and discussing ways of dealing with the consequences and implications.
Then, out of nowhere, came the shock news of Róisín Shortall’s resignation as a Minister of State. Irreconcilable differences had arisen with her senior colleague in the Department of Health, James Reilly, and clearly she felt she was not getting adequate support from her party leadership.
There are serious matters involved in this dispute: healthcare is literally a life-and-death issue. The dominant narrative has been Shortall’s, with Reilly mounting a rearguard action against charges of favouritism towards his own constituency.
The controversy reminds one irresistibly of the police inspector played by Claude Rains in Casablanca who declares as he enters Humphrey Bogart’s nightclub: “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” Indeed, the term “stroke politics” in the Irish context could be considered a tautology. It’s deplorable, of course, but any minister who wants to get re-elected needs to look to the needs of his political base.
Political survival requires that ministers look to their backyard. Like reformed alcoholics, Fianna Fáil are now preaching the virtues of abstinence in this regard. However, if Reilly sets up a range of primary care centres throughout the State but none in Dublin North, he will be lambasted by rival candidates in the next general election.
Important as the issues were in the Reilly- Shortall stand-off, nevertheless it sidetracked the political system from the main issue of the week and probably the biggest challenge facing the State: our staggering level of indebtedness and how to deal with it, which of course has huge implications on the healthcare front.
One imagines George Mitchell would have taken the two Ministers and their backup teams for a long weekend in a remote country house where their differences could be aired in an atmosphere free from day-to-day pressures and political hype. He might even have persuaded them to see their problems in a broader perspective where society itself is under threat and such public rows, even about serious issues, are essentially a distraction.
Róisín Shortall is widely admired for her sincerity, conviction and hard work, but even strong supporters of hers in the Labour Party were dismayed that she decided to step down and the most ardent fans felt she should have stayed in and faced down James Reilly. To quote a maxim of former British Labour Party leader George Lansbury: “Never resign.”