Taoiseach and ministers rally around Harris but privately there are nerves

Few people believe, at this point anyway, that Harris will be forced to resign on the issue

An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar  and Minister for Health Simon Harris help turn the sod to mark the commencement of construction of the national children’s hospital in October 2017. File photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Health Simon Harris help turn the sod to mark the commencement of construction of the national children’s hospital in October 2017. File photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

 

The Taoiseach and his ministers rallied around Minister for Health Simon Harris on Friday, with both Leo Varadkar in Belfast and Simon Coveney in Cork stressing their absolute support for their embattled colleague.

But privately, senior Government sources admit they are braced for further political difficulty on the children’s hospital budget overruns. They are also acutely aware of the political damage being inflicted on the Vardakar administration by the ongoing controversy.

Few people believe — at this point anyway — that Harris will be forced to resign on the issue. The health minister’s account of his management (non-management, really) of the escalating costs of the project has been substantially called into question — but it has not been definitively contradicted. Unless it is, this storm is just about survivable.

Partly that’s because, despite the sometimes bumpy relationship between the Taoiseach and his minister, losing a Fine Gael minister would be much more traumatic for Varadkar’s leadership than the pre-Christmas resignation from his cabinet of the Independent Denis Naughten.

But it’s also because, crucially, the Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin is not willing to demand a head. “Not politics as usual for the next seven weeks,” says a senior Fianna Fáiler.

Grumpy acquiescence

This is something which provokes the derision of Sinn Féin, but the grumpy acquiescence of Martin’s backbenchers. Sinn Féin is seeking to put pressure not just on the Government, but on Fianna Fáil by writing to Martin wondering if he will support a motion of no-confidence if they table one.

All good knockabout stuff, and mightily irritating to Fianna Fáil. But Martin will make his own decision. And right now that decision is: continue with the wounding of the Government, but don’t seek to kill it. He doesn’t want an election now, reasoning that voters would not reward anyone who caused an election in the midst of the acute phase of the Brexit crisis.

Still, TDs report that the issue is breaking through with the public in a way that political controversies often don’t.

“They get it,” says one. “They think they’re being treated like fools.”

Fianna Fáil at all levels — from grassroots supporters to the leaders’ office — is long past being fed up with the confidence and supply agreement. Were it not for Brexit, there would have been no extension of the agreement, and we would already be in the middle of a general election campaign.

But idle hypotheticals are little use to anyone in politics. The fact is there will be no change in Fianna Fáil’s stance until Brexit, one way or another, is settled. Harris’s travails will not alter that.

Several Government figures who spoke privately remain nervous, however. They know that the affairs will dominate Dáil time next week, and quaver at the thought of further revelations over the weekend.

One minister wonders if Harris should really be using the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance as his defensive shields. One can be sure the same thought has occurred to Government Buildings.