FF pat on the back will further damage Greens

 

The meek junior party of Government has confirmed that Fianna Fáil is running rings around it, writes STEPHEN COLLINSPolitical Editor

THE DECISION of Green Party TDs to vote confidence in Minister for Defence Willie O’Dea, without a murmur of anxiety at the circumstances surrounding the swearing of a false affidavit, summed up the current relationship between the parties in Government.

To reinforce the point, Green TDs received friendly pats on the back from their Fianna Fáil colleagues after walking through the Yes lobby in the Dáil.

The controversy provided the Greens with an opportunity to put down a marker with their senior partners about the issue of standards in public office, but their failure to take any kind of action has confirmed the remark of former senator Déirdre de Búrca last week that Fianna Fáil is running rings around them.

When it comes to standards of political behaviour, there could hardly be a more serious issue than the swearing of a false affidavit by a Cabinet Minister. The meek acceptance by the Greens of the Government line that it was a simple mistake has undermined the party’s credibility on the standards issue.

TDs across the political divide agreed privately yesterday that Willie O’Dea would have had to resign if the Greens insisted on it. The party’s failure of nerve has undermined it still further after the events of last week.

A comment on Twitter by Senator Dan Boyle summed it up. “As regards to Minister O’Dea I don’t have confidence in him. His situation is compromised. Probably be a few chapters in this story yet.”

Boyle’s comments illustrated why the Government moved so smartly yesterday to take the motion of confidence head on rather than wait for the Fine Gael motion of no confidence. There was clearly a fear that pressure from Green Party supporters over the weekend and the possibility of further revelations could have undermined the Coalition.

By bringing the issue to a head immediately, the Taoiseach bounced the Greens into supporting O’Dea, but the problem for the Greens is that by backing the Government they have compromised themselves on an issue that goes to the core of their philosophy.

Minister for Energy and Communications Eamon Ryan looked deeply embarrassed as he made a speech in support of O’Dea. He used the phrase “as I understand it” repeatedly as he backed the version of events given by the Minister. However, there was no hint of embarrassment from O’Dea as he made a series of jibes and jokes at the expense of Fine Gael, Labour and Sinn Féin during a speech defending the circumstances in which he swore a false affidavit.

The core of the Minister’s defence was that it was a simple mistake. “I have openly and fully acknowledged that my recollection of some of what I said in the interview with the Limerick Leader journalist as described in my original affidavit was mistaken . . . I corrected the mistake when I realised it. I admitted the mistake and apologised for it,” he said.

Taoiseach Brian Cowen and Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan backed O’Dea to the hilt and insisted that a mistake had been made and corrected.

“The matter of current controversy did not pertain to Willie O’Dea’s responsibilities as a Minister in the Government. It did not pertain to Government policies in any way, shape or form and had nothing to do with his function in the Department of Defence,” said the Taoiseach.

Enda Kenny refused to accept this and pointed out that a High Court judge had made a decision based on O’Dea’s false affidavit, and that the mistake had only been corrected later when the transcript of a tape showed his original statement to be false.

“It is not simply about the Minister . . . This is an act of criminality against the laws of the State,” said Kenny, who quoted from the Dáil record to show what Green Party leader John Gormley had to say about standards in Fianna Fáil when he was an opposition TD.

Eamon Gilmore was even more blunt. “I am frankly amazed that the Taoiseach should seek to retain in Cabinet a man who wilfully committed perjury. If this happened in the neighbouring jurisdiction, a cabinet minister wouldn’t last until the end of the day.”

Sinn Féin’s Dáil leader Caomhghín Ó Caoláin, to whose party the man at the centre of the O’Dea allegations, Cllr Maurice Quinlivan, belongs, emphasised that the controversy was not merely a personal dispute. “Let there be no pretence that this was a personal matter and that Deputy O’Dea was acting as anything other than a TD and a Government Minister. Everyone knows that Minister O’Dea is the face of this Government in Limerick.”

Regardless of whether the issue has been sorted for good or not, the episode will do further serious long-term damage to the Greens.