Coalition clashes breaking out in public

Opinion: Labour talks up divisions while Fine Gael plays them down

‘Public skirmishes between the government partners over water charges needs to be seen through a slightly broader lens than just focusing on what happened before and after Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting.’ Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

‘Public skirmishes between the government partners over water charges needs to be seen through a slightly broader lens than just focusing on what happened before and after Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting.’ Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Sat, Apr 19, 2014, 00:01

This week’s public skirmishes between the Government partners over water charges need to be seen through a slightly broader lens than just focusing on what happened before and after Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting.

A telling insight into the manner in which Labour and Fine Gael now deal with each other as coalition partners came about a month ago at the height of the controversy about the then Garda commissioner’s view of whistleblowers.

On Friday, March 21st, the RTÉ
nine o’clock news reported prominently on a public call by the Taoiseach for Ministers to desist from further comment on the issue. “I certainly have a preference,” the Taoiseach said, “if any Minister has an issue to raise that they raise it at the Cabinet rather than have them aired in public...”

The Taoiseach’s remarks came just after first Leo Varadkar and then Pat Rabbitte, Joan Burton and even Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore had called for Martin Callinan to withdraw his description of whistleblowers as “disgusting”.

The fact the Taoiseach felt it necessary to rein in Ministers, including the Tánaiste, in such a public manner spoke volumes about the tensions that had then emerged among Ministers.

What happened next was even more remarkable. About 20 minutes into the same news bulletin RTÉ’s political reporter Brian Dowling was in studio with Eileen Dunne telling her that within the previous few minutes Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn had issued a statement endorsing what Rabbitte, Burton and Gilmore had said earlier.

Deliberate defiance
It was an open and deliberate defiance of the Taoiseach’s call for quiet. Labour political and media strategists had gone out of their way to put another of their Ministers into the mix with Kenny and Fine Gael on the Callinan issue. Dowling spotted the importance of the Quinn statement, not only in terms of content but also its timing. “There is a real political difficulty here,” he concluded.

In a politically foolhardy but successful manoeuvre Labour sought over that weekend to leverage the controversy over Callinan’s remarks to counter ministerial and civil service reluctance in the Department of Justice to accepting Labour’s idea of an independent Garda authority.

On the Monday, Gilmore – who it must be recalled was then in the dark about phone recording revelations concerning Garda stations – far from holding his piece until the Cabinet meeting, made himself available for media not only to reiterate early remarks about the commissioner’s comments but added that Minister Alan Shatter should also withdraw previous suggestions that the whistleblowers had not co-operated with an internal inquiry into penalty points.

It could all have gone badly wrong for Coalition relations then were it not for the surprise resignation of the Garda commissioner that Tuesday morning, in circumstances as yet unexplained, and the dramatic public announcement about recordings at Garda stations.

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