Focus on Reilly should now be on his work, not debts
The response to James Reilly’s Dáil statement on his complex affairs was predictably cliched
A MINISTER should never be in Stubbs Gazette. No one should be there but hundreds are – every month. As the crisis in business and personal finances caused by the collapse of the property boom unravels we will see many thousands more listed there, including many surprising names from sectors and areas of activity that might not have featured in the publication so prominently in the past.
In having a member of the Cabinet on the published list of registered judgments for debt defaulters we have reached another milestone in this messy financial crisis. It is over the top, however, to say that just because someone has had a judgment registered, albeit for a very large amount, they cannot serve in Cabinet.
That is particularly the case when the delay in meeting the debt obligation arises from a disagreement between those who are severally and jointly liable for the debt or where they cannot raise the funds to meet their obligations because of legal disputes, lease difficulties and understandable reluctance on the part of bankers to lend the money they need.
The financial and ownership arrangements around the nursing home at the centre of James Reilly’s problems this week are complex. Just because something is complex, however, does not mean it is suspect. The difficulty for Reilly is that Irish politics and political media do not do complexity well.
Before forming a view on the financial issues arising for the Minister from his investment in the nursing home, and a view on the appropriateness of how he has dealt with the matter, commentators are required to engage with the financial mechanisms involved and the detail of the Ministers’ Code and the Ethics Acts. There was very little sign of such analysis this week.
Instead, mantras such as “the Minister has questions to answer” were overdeployed. Too often, when politicians seek to meet this demand for answers, the mantra becomes “this raises more questions than it answers”. When more explanations are offered, many politicians and media fall back on the old cliche “when you’re explaining you’re losing”.
Some sneered at Reilly’s Dáil statement because it included legalese. Any communications adviser would encourage a politician to explain something such as this in as simple terms as possible – but only as possible. Reilly’s statement was dealing with a series of complicated legal disputes so, of course, his statement had to include some legalese.
Rather than engage with the detail of what the Minister had to say and elaborate on it for the public, many commentators simply bemoaned the fact that it was convoluted.
One early morning moment of clarity emerged when RTÉ’s Morning Ireland interviewed UCD law lecturer James McDermott on Thursday. McDermott, while accepting Reilly’s speech was complicated, went about explaining the reasons for that complexity. Among other things, he pointed out that Reilly had made huge efforts to disengage from the investment once he became Minister. There was very little of this type of depth in the analysis and coverage that followed later in the day.
There is much to criticise around Reilly’s situation. One can criticise the provision of tax relief for nursing homes by the previous government. Many did at the time.
It is not surprising, however, that those with money or the capacity then to borrow money would group together to invest in nursing homes. That was precisely the purpose of the tax relief in question. Neither is it surprising that Reilly, then a wealthy professional, not yet involved in politics but who already had existing investments in the medical field, might be one of those to so invest.
One can criticise Enda Kenny for his decision to appoint Reilly as Minister for Health since Reilly had a web of professional and commercial interests in the health sphere and a prominent background in medical politics.
Against that, it was precisely his professional background and experience that made Reilly an attractive choice for Fine Gael when they went looking for a successor to Nora Owen in the sprawling Dublin North constituency.
It was also why he was chosen as the party’s health spokesman once elected to Dáil Éireann. Appointing someone with Reilly’s background as Minister for Health came with some risks on the perception index but it also came with benefits. Many argue for ministries to be given to those with specialist expertise and experience. Reilly had both appropriate to the Department of Health.
The conflict-of-interest charge levelled at Reilly by Sinn Féin and others this week is typically overblown. The fact that Reilly is an investor in a nursing home was known 16 months ago when he was made a Minister. He has made efforts to disengage from this investment but because of the dispute and the economic collapse has not been able to do so, even when offering to sell it at half-price.
Reilly as Minister is now advancing a policy contrary to the interests of private nursing homes in general. Like his predecessor he favours greater supports for the care of the elderly in their homes and more dramatic initiatives in this direction are expected from him shortly.
In concluding his statement, Reilly did not say when the money owed would be paid. He could not do so at this stage without compromising the legal position of his fellow investors. The legal issues clearly will require more time to resolve. If and when they are, and Reilly meets his share of the obligations, that will be that. If he doesn’t or cannot, that will have its own implications.
In the meantime, however, the focus of political and media attention should be on his work as Minister for Health, and there is much to focus on there.