Reilly drama has potential to become full-blown crisis

Sat, Oct 6, 2012, 01:00

WHEN I suggested last week that Dick Spring might have been more insistent on getting answers about how Minister for Health James Reilly had come to include two towns from his constituency in the priority list for primary care centres, I should have added that the Spring model was not necessarily best practice in terms of coalition management.

Spring was Tánaiste in a Fianna Fáil- Labour government that enjoyed a massive majority, operated in good economic times and achieved a historic breakthrough in Northern Ireland. Notwithstanding that benign environment, the government lasted only two years.

Tensions were rife between the parties and between taoiseach Albert Reynolds and Spring in particular, undermining cohesion and breaking in a bizarre series of events flowing from the Brendan Smyth case.

Spring and his leadership team were certainly more assertive of their party's position in government than Eamon Gilmore and his colleagues appear to be, although again it has to be said it didn't benefit Spring much politically.

Labour's poll rating bounced back somewhat when it left government with Fianna Fáil, but even after its stint with the Rainbow it lost half its seats in the 1997 election that saw Fianna Fáil returned to power under Bertie Ahern.

Interestingly, two of Spring's ministers, Ruairí Quinn and Brendan Howlin, are in Cabinet again. One might be inclined to suspect that their previous coalition experience has left them gun-shy in seeking to fire political pot-shots at Fine Gael over the Reilly affair. That's not what is going on here, however.

The leaders of smaller parties always have to be wary of overreach. They walk a tightrope between asserting their party's position and undermining coalition harmony. In this instance, however, it is not that Gilmore and his Ministers have weighed up the situation, taken a view that Reilly erred, and decided, in the interest of Coalition cohesion, not to push the issue. All the signs are that Gilmore and, indeed, Enda Kenny, don't appreciate the political significance of this issue.

Two weeks in, they just don't get it. This is not some media obsession about the minutiae of primary care criteria. As an issue it matters but what makes it a critical incident is that it works to undermine popular expectations about the new politics some had come to believe this Government could deliver.

The fact the Tánaiste now takes Leaders' Questions at least once a week forces the leader of the smaller party to defend the actions of Ministers of the other party on the Dáil record earlier and more extensively than he otherwise might like to. This week Ruairí Quinn had to take Leaders' Questions on Wednesday, so he had to bat for Reilly and do so with inaccurate and/or incomplete information.

The difficulty for Labour arises also from Gilmore's detached approach to party affairs. He has taken the standing of his party and the stability of the Government for granted. With Róisín Shortall joining novice Pat Nulty and veterans Tommy Broughan and Willie Penrose in resigning the Labour whip, the party is now down four deputies from the number it had a year ago, and that is before the tough budget due in December.

Some have cited the travel demands on Gilmore in the Department of Foreign Affairs as contributing to the party's difficulty. He was at the United Nations in New York, for example, at the time of Shortall's resignation.

Labour Party cohesion has broken down on this issue. On Wednesday morning a Labour Fingal councillor was the first to go public to criticise Reilly. At lunchtime MEP Phil Prendergast took to Twitter to call on him to "consider his position", adding, for good measure, "this is the sort of politics that has brought us to ruin", without specifying what she meant by "this".

Not to be outdone, Leinster MEP Nessa Childers took to Twitter a few minutes later, saying she, too, had "grave concerns" and that Reilly's position was untenable. Leinster House-based Labour politicians were more opaque in their criticisms.

Senator Susan O'Keeffe, in expressing her concern, described the communication on the controversy as "clear as mud", adding: "I am still waiting for some clarity to emerge." On Thursday night, party chairman Colm Keaveney would go only so far as to say, on radio, that the presentation around Reilly "lacked finesse".

At this stage the Reilly controversy touches on three distinct but related aspects. The second emerged this week, namely the suggestion that Reilly had somehow influenced the selection of a particular site in Balbriggan, with the implication that he had somehow exercised influence in favour of the site in which a prominent party member in Fine Gael in north Dublin had an interest.

Neither the media who have given most prominence to this aspect, nor the politicians who have followed it up, have said this explicitly but it is the underlying implication. It is unfair and inaccurate.

That charge has been answered: Reilly had no influence on the particular site within the town.

However, the reason the controversy has endured is that the central allegation that he distorted the prioritisation to ensure Balbriggan and Swords ended up on the priority list has not gone away. The allegation here is not one of corruption: it is of constituency favouritism. The explanation at this point last week was inadequate.

The way information about the criteria has come out raises the understandable concern that if there was a straightforward explanation we would have heard it.

This controversy could and should have been put to bed between Labour and Fine Gael long ago. It now has the potential to become full-blown and that is the last thing the Coalition or the country needs eight weeks before the budget.

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