Coalition strained over proposed severe health cuts
TENSIONS BETWEEN the Coalition parties over proposed health cuts are expected to dominate the first Cabinet meeting after the summer break tomorrow.
The two Ministers at the centre of the row, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin and Minister for Health James Reilly, met over the weekend to try and ease the conflict between the Coalition partners on the issue.
The clash between the two Ministers generated weekend speculation about the prospect of an early general election but senior sources in both parties were adamant yesterday that such talk was premature.
Responding to Labour Party chairman Colm Keaveney, who had suggested that it was time to prepare for an early election, chairman of the Fine Gael parliamentary party Charlie Flanagan yesterday called for calm.
Mr Flanagan told The Irish Times that Fine Gael and Labour had signed off on the programme for government in full knowledge of the fiscal position and with their eyes wide open.
“Now is not the time for Colm Keaveney to contemplate the panic button and manufacture instability even before the most challenging budgetary choices in the State’s history have begun to be debated by government,” said the Laois TD.
He added that while there would certainly be difficulties in agreeing a budget, it was “premature and unwise” to speculate about the demise of the Government.
Mr Flanagan defended Dr Reilly saying it was unfair to single out an individual Minister as appeared to have been the case over the weekend.
Mr Keaveney reiterated his opposition to the proposed health cuts insofar as they affected vulnerable members of society.
He added, however, that as just €30 million of the €130 million cuts package hit frontline services, it should be possible to find a way of protecting those services. “It is the responsibility of the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste to address the issue at Cabinet tomorrow and remove the perception that the cuts are unjust and unfair,” Mr Keaveney said.
The manner in which the health cuts were announced without prior notice being given to Labour or Fine Gael Ministers had been damaging.
“What alarms me is the lack of communication among senior Ministers of the Government. This kind of approach chips away incrementally at the stability of the Government,” Mr Keaveney said.
He expressed confidence that a solution could be found that would protect frontline services. “There has been a blatant lack of progress with respect to consultants’ high pay and the cost of drugs in the health service. These issues have to be tackled as a matter of urgency.”
Mr Keaveney, who was quoted in yesterday’s newspapers as saying that it would be wrong for his party not to prepare for a general election, said the main focus of his remarks was to ensure that the health cuts did not go ahead as proposed.
Health is not the only areas where there is conflict between the Coalition parties. Mr Howlin is due to bring a memo to cabinet tomorrow on the issue of allowances to public servants.
The Irish Times reported on Saturday that a long-awaited review of the 800 allowances paid to staff in the public service which Mr Howlin is expected to bring to Cabinet will recommend the continuation of current allowances for existing staff but there will be big cuts in payments for new personnel.
The review of allowances, which currently cost about €1.5 billion, was expected to yield savings of €75 million this year. However, given the delay in finalising the review and the fact that cuts will, in the main, only affect new entrants, this has cast doubt on whether this level of savings can be achieved.
Sources close to the Department of Public Expenditure yesterday said that in the medium term,“significant” savings could be secured from cuts to the allowances of new staff .
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin described the latest developments in the health service as “an extraordinary shambles” and said Dr Reilly’s position had become untenable.
He said Fianna Fáil would consider putting down a motion of no confidence in Dr Reilly when the Dáil resumed.