Greens 'vetoed' Cowen's plan to appoint ministers
Deep disagreement between the Coalition parties emerged today over Taoiseach Brian Cowen's handling of the retirements of six senior ministers, with Mr Cowen defending his actions.
In the Dail this afternoon, Mr Cowen set the general election date for Friday, March 11th and reassigned the vacant portfolios to existing ministers.
Green Party leader and Minister for the Environment John Gormley said this evening his party was not informed of the impending resignations and had opposed Mr Cowen’s original plan to make new ministerial appointments to the Cabinet.
“We did not think this was a good idea. If it went to a vote in the Dáil we would not have been in a position to support this,” he said in press conference in Dublin this evening following a Green Party meeting. “We were told …by the media about this decision. It seemed to be a fait accompli."
Speaking tonight, Mr Cowen insisted he had answered any concerns the Green Party had about a reshuffle at a meeting on Monday morning.
Mr Cowen said he was aware the Greens were "having concerns about perception" with regard to the appointment of new Fianna Fáil ministers to replace those who had resigned, but said decisions could not be made based on perception.
"What has happened is they have decided to veto the appointment of new Fianna Fáil ministers for those who are not going to stand in the next election. I believe it is cynical to leave such ministers in office."
Mr Cowen said he had sought to appoint people who were running for election and who had "the potential to stay in government" after an election.
Mr Cowen said despite this the Coalition parties had "united behind a decision". All he had been seeking to do was what any other leader of any government would do in appointing ministers, he said. Today's events have led to renewed criticism of Mr Cowen's leadership from within his party, with Minister of State Conor Lenihan calling for him to resign.
While the Greens leader said today he had no reason to believe the relationship between the Government partners had been "irreparably damaged", Mr Gormley admitted there had been "tensions" in meetings in recent days.
Asked if the Greens had considered pulling out of Government, Mr Gormley said "all options" had been considered but the party did not want to give the impression that there was "a very great difficulty" between the parties over the Finance Bill. He said the country needs a period of stability to get the Bill through the Oireachtas.
Mr Cowen did not make new appointments to the Cabinet, meaning a number of existing Ministers will take on additional responsibilities. He reassigned the Department of Health and Children to Tánaiste Mary Coughlan and gave the justice portfolio to Minister for Agriculture Brendan Smith.
The transport portfolio has been assigned to the Minister for Community and Family Affairs Pat Carey, while Mr Cowen assigned the defence porfolio to Minister for Social Protection Eamon Ó Cuív. Minister for Tourism Mary Hanafin takes over the enterprise, trade and innovation brief.
Mr Cowen also paid tribute to the six ministers who have resigned. Minster for Enterprise, Trade and Innovation Batt O’Keeffe tendered his resignation from Cabinet today, while Mary Harney, Dermot Ahern, Noel Dempsey and Tony Killeen gave their letters of resignation to the Taoiseach late last night.
Micheál Martin stepped down on Tuesday night following his failed challenge to Mr Cowen's leadership of Fianna Fáil.
Minister of State Conor Lenihan said this afternoon the Taoiseach should resign and that the last 24 hours had raised questions about his leadership.
The Taoiseach said he intends to dissolve the current Dáil once the Finance Bill has completed its passage through the Oireachtas. Mr Cowen said the second stage of the Bill would be taken next week and subsequent stages in following weeks.
Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny said the Taoiseach had given “finality and conclusion and clarity” to the issue. He hoped that this would restore “some sense of authority and respect and dignity to this House”.
Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore offered his best wishes on a personal level to the departing ministers but said they could have stayed in office until the election. He welcomed the fact that a date has been set "at long last", but said the Taoiseach could have made the announcement this morning and "avoided the chaos”.
“The Taoiseach attempted a stroke and it backfired,” Mr Gilmore said. “He ended up as a Taoiseach without authority. He no longer has the authority to do the most essential thing for a Taoiseach, which is to appoint the members of Government.”
Sinn Féin Dáil leader Caoimhghín Ó Caolain said Mr Cowen was “a lame duck Taoiseach, with a lame duck Government”.
Mr Ó Caolain pointed to the absence of any Green Party TDs in the chamber. “That speaks louder than anything else here in this moment in time. They quite clearly were not up for it, they felt this was the straw that would break the camel’s back,” he said.
Mr Cowen denied he was engaging in any “stunts”. Ministers believed it was important they resign because they would not be accountable at the election, he said. Other than Mr Martin, all of the Ministers who resigned have announced that they do not intend to contest the forthcoming election.
The Taoiseach said he reassigned the portfolios to existing members of Cabinet because he had not wanted any additional cost to the State to be involved in the appointments.
"I believe it would be far better that … new nominees would be people in a position to go out and advocate and defend our position in Government for the past three-and-a-half years,” he said. "That will enable the people on March 11th to consider what parties, all of whom will be competing for power not walking away from power, they wish to elect.
"I challenge the politically correct view that it was for the purpose of a stunt. Far from it,” he said. "What this election is about is the future of this country."