Shortall sidelined by unwritten rules of government


As a Minister of State, Róisín Shortall had little if any patronage in the Department of Health

ONE CAN only imagine how different the story would be if this was a Fianna Fáil-Labour government rather than a Fine Gael-Labour one. Had a Labour Minister of State felt compelled to resign because of the way he or she had been treated by a Fianna Fáil minister, you could bet your bottom dollar Fianna Fáil would have come out the worst of it.

In contrast, many in the media seem to have decided it is Róisín Shortall and the Labour Party, rather than Fine Gael, that are most damaged by this week’s developments.

By the time you read this, there is every possibility that Shortall will have been out on the airwaves or in print giving a detailed explanation for her resignation. Her blow- by-blow account of life in James Reilly’s department will be fascinating whenever it comes. Until she goes public and her version of events is cross-examined, any assessment of the reasons for her resignation can only be tentative.

Even at this stage, however, an examination of the surrounding circumstances suggests this was no fit of pique on Shortall’s part or some inherent inability to cope with the constraints of junior ministerial office. Nor does it come down merely to a clash of personalities.

It was not her volcanic relationship with Reilly that led to Shortall’s resignation; it was her arctic relationship with Eamonn Gilmore. For all their warm words, Gilmore and his Labour Cabinet colleagues left Shortall out in the cold.

Shortall queried whether decisions in the Department of Health were being made not “in the public interest based on health need” but were “driven by other concerns”.

Instead of pursuing whether there was any basis to the perception that Reilly had favoured his own constituency in handing out prioritisation for primary care centres, Labour Ministers simply expressed themselves satisfied that no issue arose. Dick Spring in similar circumstances would have kicked in the doors of Hawkins House and demanded to review the files personally in the Minister’s office.

It was not until after Shortall had resigned that any explanation emerged as to why two towns in Reilly’s constituency had shot up the primary care priority list. Since last weekend Reilly and several other ministers waffled about how there was a need to add an additional 15 centres to the priority list but they could not explain how Swords and Balbriggan just happened to end up among this additional 15.

Labour’s leading figures floundered while giving different and contradictory reasons why what looked like a stroke and walked like a stroke somehow was not a stroke. Some of the reasons they provided for increasing the priority list from 20 to 35 were logical but did not answer the central question.

On Thursday night, 24 hours after Shortall’s resignation had been announced, Reilly told the Dáil that when the Health Service Executive had completed the list of 20 primary care centres to be supported under the Government’s stimulus package, and after Shortall had signed off on the list, he had decided not only to expand the list to 35 but also to introduce a new, more complex set of criteria for selecting those to be given priority.

His new set of criteria, however, has all the signs of a mathematical equation written backwards – a rating system designed to deliver a predetermined outcome.

If the elaborated reconfiguration of criteria set out by Reilly in the Dáil on Thursday night did in fact happen and the 200 towns involved were in fact reordered and relisted in accordance with it, then there must be a pallet of paperwork dealing with this change in the department. If this documentation exists then let’s see it now. If it does not and all this was done verbally, then Reilly may have just dug a bigger hole for himself.

The most curious aspect of Reilly’s speech on Thursday night was his use of language around whether his Cabinet colleagues had been aware of the reconfiguration of the criteria. He told the House he had made the decision to expand and reorder the list in “consultation with department officials and Government Ministers”.

He told of how he had written to Shortall in July relating how a consensus “had emerged at senior ministerial level” to expand the list. He appears to suggest it was discussed with other Ministers but not at Cabinet itself. Yet, as Mary Lou McDonald has pointed out, the public utterances of Ministers such as Leo Varadkar, Pat Rabbitte and even Eamon Gilmore suggest they knew nothing of the basis for the inclusion of Swords and Balbriggan in the priority list.

Could it be that at the heart of this controversy is a cosiness between Cabinet Ministers or at least some Cabinet Ministers? Could the real explanation for what went on be the sometimes articulated but usually unspoken pact among senior Ministers about patronage which says: you can look after your constituency so long as you don’t object to me looking after mine?

Could it be that the Dublin North Minister can add two Dublin North towns to the primary care list, as long as another Minister’s constituency gets one as well, and a backbencher is shored up by getting a town on the list also?

Róisín Shortall, as a mere Minister of State with no real patronage, would have been left out of this exchange. These unwritten rules are not new to this Government; they are as old as time. It’s just that this Government promised things would be different.

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