Flannery departure shows politics is a cruel trade

Opinion: Damaging fallout from lobbying revelations

‘Despite his importance to Enda Kenny and Fine Gael, when he became a political liability last week there was no room for sentiment and Frank Flannery was cut loose.’ Photograph: Eric Luke

‘Despite his importance to Enda Kenny and Fine Gael, when he became a political liability last week there was no room for sentiment and Frank Flannery was cut loose.’ Photograph: Eric Luke

Sun, Mar 16, 2014, 12:01

The abrupt withdrawal of Frank Flannery’s Dáil pass and his departure as director of elections for Fine Gael in the forthcoming local elections illustrated the old cliché that politics is a cruel trade.

Flannery has been a key figure in Fine Gael going back to the early 1980s when he was one of a group of unpaid advisers dubbed “the national handlers” who helped Garret FitzGerald remodel the party.

In more recent times he was a central figure in transforming Fine Gael from a badly beaten and demoralised organisation after the crushing defeat of 2002 to becoming the biggest political party in the country in 2011.

The Flannery Report commissioned by Enda Kenny in the summer of 2002 provided the blueprint for recovery. It was crucial in helping the widely underestimated Kenny defy the pundits and become the most successful Fine Gael leader in the party’s history.

Despite his importance to Kenny and Fine Gael, when he became a political liability last week there was no room for sentiment and Flannery was cut loose.

Winston Churchill in his book Great Contemporaries quoted an adage of another great British politician ,William Ewart Gladstone, who once remarked: “The first essential for a prime minister is to be a good butcher.”

Churchill noted that at certain times, when the public need required it, political allies had to be put aside once and for all. “Personal friendship might survive if it would. Political association was finished. But how else can states be governed?”

Flannery became a political liability for the Government over the past couple of weeks because of his poorly judged response to the unfolding inquiry by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) into the charity sector.

Since the economic crisis struck in 2009 hardship has been endured by a range of groups and individuals across Irish society. The necessary squeeze on public spending has resulted in pay cuts across the public service as well as the job losses and pay cuts in the private sector.

It was inevitable and appropriate that at some stage the State’s allocation of more than €3 billion a year to the charity sector should be put under the microscope.

Exchequer-funded salaries right across the board from politicians and senior public servants to quango and charity chiefs were allowed to spin out of control as a result of the disastrous “benchmarking” exercise. Most have been cut back since austerity struck, but it is only now that the funding of the voluntary sector is really getting the attention it deserves.

While the bulk of the €3 billion for the sector goes to fund vital services that benefit the truly vulnerable people in Irish society, the pay of those working in the sector is largely funded by the exchequer grants and there has been growing concern about the large salaries of some of those in leading positions.

The Health Service Executive has rightly been looking into how exchequer funding is being spent and that in turn has triggered the investigations by the PAC into the pay scales of people at the top of organisations such as the Central Remedial Clinic and the Rehab Group.

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