When you're explaining. . .
IT’S AN old axiom of politics: when you’re explaining, you’re losing. Minister for Health James Reilly’s rather convoluted Wednesday night explanation to the Dáil of how and why he and other co-investors have failed to honour a High Court judgment to repay a substantial debt, has raised more questions than answers.
Undoubtedly, Dr Reilly is part victim of legal circumstances beyond his control. However, he is also in some measure the author of his own misfortune. His handling of a private property investment that has involved much dispute and extensive litigation has been poor. Dr Reilly, in his personal statement to the Dáil, has confirmed that he – and his fellow recourse investors in a Tipperary nursing home – will meet their financial obligations and fully discharge a €1.9 million debt that is owing to other, non recourse co-owners. (Recourse investors are wholly liable for money borrowed to finance the project.) In his statement, he raised expectations of a quick resolution to the debt problem, citing the assurances from his lawyer that “very significant efforts are under way” to agree a method of repayment. Let us hope so. And, for Dr Reilly and the Government’s sake, the sooner this happens the better.
The Minister for Health has bought time – for now. Unless, however, this matter is resolved quickly, Dr Reilly’s position in Cabinet will become untenable. Already, his actions have tarnished the Government’s image and greatly embarrassed his ministerial colleagues. They were unaware of the extent of his financial difficulties and are privately shocked by his appearance in Stubbs Gazette as a debt defaulter. He owes them an apology. Since February, when the High Court decision was handed down ordering the debt payment, efforts by Dr Reilly and others to resolve all outstanding litigation, to facilitate the raising of a bank loan to repay the money owed, were unsuccessful. On June 28th, the registration of the court judgment – about which Dr Reilly must have known – ensured his eventual naming in Stubbs. And that raises the question why he, and the Government, given such advance notice, were so unprepared for the bad news.
There is no evidence of impropriety in Dr Reilly’s various actions, and claims made of a conflict of interest between his present public role as Minister and his past private role as an extensive investor in the health sector, are hard to sustain. But certainly he could have done more sooner to separate these roles, if only to allay any public concerns. In opposition, where for many years he was Fine Gael’s health spokesman, he was always regarded as a likely health minister in a future coalition government. Had the blind trust that Dr Reilly sought, but failed to establish on coming into ministerial office, been put in place sooner – when in opposition – the controversy would have been more muted.
Dr Reilly’s personal statement to the Dáil is unsatisfactory for another reason. Personal statements cannot be debated, which means that Dr Reilly – like Independent TD Mick Wallace some weeks ago – is less accountable than he should be for his actions.