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


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.

These other happenings meant that Labour’s gamble had paid off. They not only got a Government decision to set up an independent Garda authority but also a Cabinet subcommittee, chaired by the Taoiseach, to oversee its implementation.

These are precarious times for the Coalition. The clock is running down on its term – with less than two years to go – and it face a series of second-order elections at the end of next month.

Elections by their very nature tend to alter the political atmosphere. Even byelections tend to make the political climate more intense. Media ramp up political coverage. The volume of parliamentary exchanges turns up several notches. Candidates fearing electoral collapse go rogue and speak out against fellow government candidates.

The noteworthy thing about recent clashes between the Government parties is not that they are happening, it’s that they are happening in public. What is also remarkable is the tendency of Labour to talk up the divisions while Fine Gael seeks to play them down. Anyone who has been in or around coalition government can spot the warning signs.

Fine Gael was foolhardy to try to bounce Labour on the water charges issue this week. It could have been argued that it was necessary for Phil Hogan to circulate the Cabinet memo late in order to avoid media leaks were it not for the fact that the details of its contents were broadcast by RTÉ before most Ministers saw it.

Reading the details of a decision they were supposed to be making later that day in their morning papers would have got the backs of Labour Ministers up even in calmer times. They could see Hogan’s fingerprints all over the leaks.

In all the Labour comments which followed Tuesday’s dust-up, those of Labour Party backbencher Kevin Humphreys are of particular importance. He went on tape for Wednesday’s Morning Ireland saying: “Fine Gael’s leaking was dishonourable. There is a lot more to be agreed or discussed between the parties. I can’t speak for my party, but I would not be as trusting of Fine Gael as previously.”

Humphreys is not a hot-head. He has often been the voice chosen by the party press office to subtly mark Fine Gael’s card. He is, as it happens, Labour’s deputy director of elections for the local elections.

The fact that Humphreys doesn’t feel the need to be subtle when talking about a breakdown in trust between Labour and Fine Gael speaks volumes.

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