Tanaiste's stance on Molloy calls into question judgment again


ANALYSIS:Tánaiste's involvement and proximity to Lisbon vote magnifies the Fás pension issue

ALBERT REYNOLDS once memorably remarked about government and leadership that "you get over big issues, but it's the little things that trip you up".

Tánaiste Mary Coughlan's latest travail is in a long tradition of politicians finding themselves in the line of fire over process. It's when the political judgment exercised by a Minister when confronted with a situation is tested; what they knew or did not know; what they did or did not do. And if the controversy is big enough, survival is sometimes decided on the smallest and seemingly most innocuous detail.

Looked at in isolation, this episode is not a major one - not of the scale of the crises that faced Micheál Martin over nursing home charges or Martin Cullen over the appointment of Monica Leech as an adviser.

But according to Government colleagues, what has magnified this controversy is the proximity of the Lisbon campaign and the fact that it involves the Tánaiste, whose performance and authority have been subject to scrutiny and criticism in recent times.

However, there is another element. Since the disclosure last Thursday that incentives worth €1 million were offered to the director general of Fás Rody Molloy last November to ensure his immediate departure from the organisation, various Ministers have been at sixes and sevens when it came to explaining and justifying it. The Greens upped the ante by asking for clarity. And the Opposition, as one would expect, have made political capital of it, using the controversy to further illustrate what they see as Coughlan's lack of judgment and wherewithal for the State's second most senior political post.

Her cause was not helped by mixed messages from her colleagues and a failure to clarify why it was decided not to seek legal advice. The matter was further confused during Taoiseach Brian Cowen's interview with RTÉ's This Week programme on Sunday. He said Molloy had not threatened legal action. That assertion seemed to contradict an impression that legal action was imminent if Fás had not struck a quick deal with its departing director general.

It took the Government until yesterday to clear up all the issues relating to legal advice and if the package fell within guidelines. A cursory examination of all the statements shows that nowhere is it stated that Molloy explicitly threatened legal action. However, the statement issued by the Department of Enterprise on Friday refers to "any possible legal action by ... Molloy". That left open the inference at the very least of an implied legal threat.

And it was only yesterday that the Government cleared up the uncertainty as to whether the severance agreement fell within Department of Finance guidelines. It published the guidelines for severance and early retirement for chief executives of State bodies. The guidelines allow an extra year of pension for each year above 15 years of service, subject to a maximum of five years (Molloy had been a public servant for 35 years). While the terms seem extraordinarily generous, the document shows it was within guidelines.

Coughlan, Government colleagues argue, has been subject to a "witchhunt" of late but some agree privately that she had drawn some of it on to herself because of her tendency towards flippancy in public comments.

"Ironically Mary [ Coughlan] was right on this one and had been consistent since last Thursday. The Opposition and the media made it look bad just because she was involved," said a senior Government source.