Breakaway will have lasting consequences for Fine Gael and the party system

Opinion: Kenny was right on the legislation but his decision to flex his muscles in the party was a strange one

Lucinda Creighton: frequently spoken of as a potential leader of Fine Gael. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Lucinda Creighton: frequently spoken of as a potential leader of Fine Gael. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Sat, Dec 28, 2013, 01:01

Any list of the most impressive Irish politicians of 2013 has to include Lucinda Creighton.

This weekend last December, Creighton began a frantic six-month schedule of meetings and travel as part of the Irish presidency of the European Union. As minister for European affairs she was central to the politics and lawmaking of the EU for the first half of 2013. All who worked with her acknowledged her grasp of the issues, her forensic understanding of the European legislative framework, her capacity to chair or contribute to important deliberations and to communicate about them afterwards.

It was an impressive six months of accomplishments for a young politician who had already proved one of the better junior ministers even before the presidency began. Indeed, as a female in her early 30s, reaching the rank of minister of State was itself a considerable achievement in our political system, which is overwhelmingly dominated by older males.

Leadership contender
Notwithstanding her previously uncomfortable relationship with Enda Kenny, Creighton’s work as minister for European affairs meant she was a contender for even higher ministerial office in any reshuffle. If denied promotion then, she seemed destined anyhow for greater things in the party, and was frequently spoken of as a potential party leader.

Twelve months later Creighton is not only out of office but she is out of the Fine Gael parliamentary party, and her status as a future member and candidate for Fine Gael seems uncertain.

It is worth reflecting on how this came about. It happened not because of some ministerial mistake on her part, or some political or personal scandal or controversy. It happened because she wilfully effected the loss of her ministerial office by voting in defiance of her party on an issue which for her was one of principle.

Resignations from office on a policy issue are a very rare phenomenon in the history of Irish politics.

Handful of resignations
Among the handful of such events was Noel Browne’s resignation from the first inter-party government in April 1951, when his ministerial colleagues failed to support his Mother and Child primary healthcare scheme. In December 1983 the former Labour party leader, Frank Cluskey, resigned as a minister from the Fine Gael-Labour coalition because of that government’s refusal to fully nationalise Dublin Gas.

Ministers or ministers of State have of course on occasion resigned over a constituency issue, the most recent example being Westmeath deputy Willie Penrose’s decision to give up his minister of State position with sitting rights at Cabinet in protest at the government closure of Mullingar barracks.

More notable in the current Dáil term was Róisín Shortall’s resignation as Minister of State at the Department of Health in protest at how the locations of Government-supported primary care centres were to be prioritised.

Creighton’s resignation was unusual in that it arose both from a national issue and one arising from outside of her portfolio.

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