Mask slips on a Government wounded in battle over disability cuts
“In the end, we came out feeling that it was very worthwhile in terms of ongoing relations so there was a lot that was positive . . . We would have been very, very excited but for the worry that people down the line from us would be made to shoulder the cuts that we were saved from.”
But by then, the blame game was well under way. That meeting had begun with “almost a denial” about the origin of the press release announcing the proposals last Thursday week.
Of course, the HSE had put its name to it. Fine Gael TDs are still seething about the abrupt text message telling them to check their inboxes for an “important” notice from the HSE, due any minute. “A press release from the HSE, while the Dáil is in recess. With no mention of the Minister and no sign of him either. Who elected Tony O’Brien to make cuts,” asked an angry Fine Gael backbencher on Thursday.
“The role of the HSE is confusing in all this,” mused another prominent, senior Fine Gaeler. “The board has been stood down. So what is its function now? Is there some issue between the department and the HSE regarding roles of power and influence.”
Well, that’s the game in a nutshell, said a senior department source. “The illusion is that the HSE is a distinct, independent entity, but in fact, the department and the HSE are essentially one and the same thing.”
Since the Minister sacked the old HSE board last year, the new board has been filled with senior department staff and officials. It is also chaired by the department’s secretary general. “They’re basically talking to themselves. The last HSE board meeting actually took place in Hawkins House. Everything is dictated by the department . . . It’s been centrally involved in these measures. The Minister is driving it all.”
But another senior FG figure wondered, casually, if the cuts proposals had “really” been such a surprise to the Labour Party. Hadn’t Eamon Gilmore, Róisín Shortall and Kathleen Lynch – as well as James Reilly – attended meetings in July and August, chaired by Enda Kenny, where all this would have been discussed? The flaw with this is that it would place the Taoiseach at the scene of the “crime”, despite his efforts to dissociate himself by praising Reilly’s “courage” in reversing the cuts. However, other sources stated emphatically, that although the quantum of savings required was never in dispute, at no point during these meetings was there a discussion about cuts to frontline services.
Reilly’s re-emergence into the public domain after six days did little for troop morale. He denied on Prime Time that there had been a U-turn at all despite the Taoiseach’s praise for his reversal. One FG backbencher, hitherto a Reilly fan, said: “It was a case of ‘the dog ate my homework’, a performance straight from the Bart Simpson school of ‘it wasn’t my fault!’. Everyone else was to blame and apparently we all just imagined the cuts.” He now takes the view that James Reilly has had a “charmed” political existence.
“He was only elected in 2007 and came into Fine Gael as a superstar. He was put straight on to the front bench and into the job of deputy leader after the heave . . . I know there are people who think a businessman like Michael O’Leary is best equipped to run the country or that a doctor is the best person to have as Minister for Health – but what this shows is that you also need political skills. It’s not all about bombast . . .”