Stepping down brings sorry chapter to a close

 

THE RESIGNATION of Willie O’Dea from the Cabinet just a little more than 24 hours after Fianna Fáil and Green Party TDs had voted confidence in him brought to a close a sorry chapter for both Government parties and restored some self-respect for the Greens, writes STEPHEN COLLINS, Political Editor

By publicly expressing his own lack of confidence in O’Dea, despite the Dáil vote, Green Party chairman Senator Dan Boyle triggered a sequence of events that rescued his party from an ignominious submission to the will of Fianna Fáil.

The striking aspect of Wednesday’s confidence debate was that Fianna Fáil Ministers appeared completely oblivious to the seriousness of the issue at stake, while Green Party TDs gave an impression of helpless acquiescence in something they found acutely embarrassing.

By keeping the issue alive the Green chairman gave his party a second chance to confront the issues at the heart of the controversy and to make a stand for standards in public office. Second time around, the party summoned up the nerve to act in line with its principles.

Green TDs and Senators met for most of the day at Leinster House yesterday as the controversy continued to swirl around them.

In the Dáil, the Opposition refused to let either Government party off the hook.

Fine Gael piled on the pressure in the Seanad by putting down a motion of no confidence in O’Dea for next week. It meant Senator Boyle would have been forced to confront the issue head on if the Minister survived.

Just to add to the air of political instability, the Government came within a whisker of losing a Dáil vote on the Finance Bill.

With the vote tied, due to the absence of eight Fianna Fáil TDs, it took the casting vote of Ceann Comhairle Seamus Kirk to save the day.

“The atmosphere reminds me of the last days of Albert Reynolds,” remarked one long-serving Fianna Fáil TD, as Leinster House was gripped by a fit of the jitters.

The interview that O’Dea gave to Sean O’Rourke on RTÉ Radio at lunchtime yesterday was the first real signal that he was on his way out of office.

In contrast to his combative and sometimes jocular speech in the Dáil confidence motion the day before, O’Dea was contrite and downbeat.

While still insisting that he had not committed perjury, he admitted to making a serious mistake and apologised profusely for what he had done.

At one stage in the interview, O’Dea was asked whether he would resign, and while he said he did not intend to do so, he added that “my position is always in the hands of the Taoiseach to do with as he will”. The tenor of the interview suggested the Minister was on his way out of office.

Shortly afterwards he phoned Taoiseach Brian Cowen to discuss his position, just as the Greens were meeting to discuss it.

As the Greens continued to meet during the afternoon, TDs of all parties began to cluster in groups around Leinster House debating which was more likely – the resignation of the Minister, or the withdrawal of the Greens from Government.

At their meeting, the Greens agreed that things had changed since the vote of confidence the day before.

The first issue was that party leader John Gormley had been assured by O’Dea on Wednesday that the publication of the full interview with the Limerick Chronicle would vindicate him.

The Green TDs then concluded that it had done nothing of the kind.

The second issue of deep concern to the Greens was the reference O’Dea made during the Dáil debate to having received the false information from the gardaí.

“We were alarmed at such inappropriate behaviour by a Government Minister, but it was sprung on us at the very end of a Dáil debate,” said a Green TD last night.

The conduct of Fianna Fáil Ministers during the Dáil debate also affronted some of the Green TDs.

Gormley went to a meeting with the Taoiseach in the mid-afternoon to convey the views of his colleagues, and inform Cowen that they could no longer support O’Dea’s continuation in office.

However, Fianna Fáil sources insisted that the decision of O’Dea to resign had been taken during his conversation with the Taoiseach, and had happened before the Greens made their demands later in the afternoon.