Shortall reflects Labour's growing sense of unease


INSIDE POLITICS:Some parts of Róisín Shortall’s speech that could have come from a script by Joe Higgins or Richard Boyd Barrett

SHORTLY AFTER becoming Taoiseach, Enda Kenny told Ryan Tubridy on the Late Late Show that he was keeping a “report card” on the performance of every Minister in Cabinet. Kenny was wearing his “Paddy never makes a promise he can’t keep” expression at the time, but when the commitment resurfaced at the end of the Government’s first year in office, a spokesman said firmly: “There are no report cards.”

Like the political journalist who famously said about a controversial story, “It was true when I wrote it”, one suspects the Taoiseach meant what he said at the time (he repeated the promise some months later). Kenny wanted to convey a message on a high-profile TV programme that his Government would be more accountable than its unhappy and ill-fated predecessor.

The Taoiseach hadn’t thought it through but, when he finally did so, he clearly realised that populism isn’t always good politics. If the former primary teacher had gone ahead and published assessments of his Cabinet (or worse still, if he had drawn them up and they were leaked, or extracted from him under the Freedom of Information Act), he would have come under pressure to get rid of the ones who got low marks.

However, he couldn’t have fired any Labour Ministers without Eamon Gilmore’s agreement and, if anyone in Fine Gael got a lower rating than a Labour colleague, that would have caused a major row in his own party. In other words, there would have been a right old mess, which Kenny managed to avoid by quietly dropping his foolish Friday- night promise. The man from Mayo has a healthy survival instinct.

This week, however, what amounted to a report card on the Fine Gael Minister for Health was issued in the Dáil by one of his two Labour Ministers of State, Róisín Shortall. In the debate on the motion of no confidence in James Reilly, she failed to mention his name even once, but her mark on his report card looked very like nought out of 10.

Had Shortall voted in favour of the motion of no confidence, it couldn’t have been much worse for the Coalition. She was followed by the other Labour junior, Kathleen Lynch, who said the Minister was “doing a tremendous job under appalling circumstances”.

Small wonder that a Labour TD was heard to say next morning with regard to the Shortall speech: “We are supposed to be a political party, not a relationship support team.” The fragile connection between politics and reality was evident in the chamber when Gilmore insisted there was “a strong team in the Department of Health”.

Keeping the show on the road is clearly important to the Labour leadership but there are others in the party who look upon the Coalition with Fine Gael as a business arrangement that isn’t going all that well – in the area of health in particular.

They would have lapped up Róisín Shortall’s speech and, if there was a party conference any time soon, she would get a much bigger ovation than even Joan Burton.

Now we learn that two locations in Reilly’s north Dublin constituency, as well as three others elsewhere, were added to the places chosen for primary care centres after the “final” list drawn up by the Health Service Executive was passed to his department.

Shortall had already raised the issue in a general way in her speech when she called for such decisions to be “transparent and objective, based on health need and no other consideration”.

It is not the first time the question arose as to whether a minister’s constituency received favoured treatment. However, TDs themselves tend not to raise such issues because it might circumscribe their own course of action if they managed to garner a Cabinet position in the future. Shortall was in breach of the unspoken rules of the game, but that culture is contrary to the public interest and the rules of geographical fairness.

There were parts of Shortall’s speech that could have come from a script by Joe Higgins or Richard Boyd Barrett, with such left-wing sentiments as “Who will bear the burden of the cuts?”

The prevailing view in Leinster House, however, is that the differences between Reilly and Shortall are as much personal as political and that there is no significant element of the Labour Party preparing to jump ship over the harsh medicine to be dispensed in the budget.

After all, as a centre-ground Fine Gael TD put it privately: “Where are they going to go?”

The electorate may be in serious grumbling mode but it has little reason to welcome a dissolution of the Dáil at the moment.

Indeed, polling suggests that a general election would be used by the voters to exact vengeance on the Labour Party which, rightly or wrongly, is attracting considerably more odium than its Government partners.

The TD went on to speculate that an election might even result in an overall majority for Fine Gael and he commented that there was a high proportion of what he called “right-wingers” in his parliamentary party at present.

The younger they are, the more conservative, it seems. This is not reflected so much in Cabinet as at meetings of the Fine Gael parliamentary party, which are becoming weekly grumblefests on such issues as the Croke Park agreement and abortion.

The claim that “the red tail is wagging the blue dog” has already entered political folklore and there is much talk about a “five-a- side club” of dissident Fine Gaelers.

It’s going to be an interesting time between now and Christmas.

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