Shortall resignation a distraction from bigger issues


INSIDE POLITICS: Conflict between individual Ministers is overshadowed by the problem of our crushing level of indebtedness

AT THE bottom of the stairs leading to the Dáil chamber there is a glass box in which significant documents from our political and parliamentary history are placed on display. The latest item in the series is a momentous one indeed: the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

The terms of the agreement are familiar to many people, but the requirement for an oath of fidelity to the British monarch still makes one pause to reflect on all the strife, suffering and death in the civil war that ensued over that searing provision.

Yet you have only to climb the stairs to the chamber to see the two sides in that tragic internal conflict, since labelled Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, engaging in robust but peaceful debate. In another section are seated the members of Sinn Féin, including deputies who have served long prison terms for IRA offences.

The moral of the story is that politics works, but you have to keep trying. Sinn Féin, for example, would still be the IRA’s brass band if a whole range of people had not been willing to put time, effort and endless patience into the peace process.

One of those responsible for that seismic shift, former US Senator George Mitchell, featured in a remarkable television documentary on the BBC this week in which he took his 14-year-old son, Andrew, around Northern Ireland to see the changes that have come about since that eventful Good Friday of April 1998.

The assets Mitchell brought to the table included civility, forbearance and the long view of history. Maybe we need to recruit him to assist us in getting out of our current economic imbroglio.

The news from the European mainland this week was fairly devastating. The bright hopes for a significant easing of the bank debt on our shoulders were dealt a severe blow in a negative joint message put out by the finance ministers of Germany, Finland and the Netherlands.

There were moments like that in the peace process as well, such as the breakdown of the first IRA ceasefire, when the future looked bleak and it took genuine leadership on all sides to bring Northern Ireland back from the brink. Likewise, this State clearly needs cross-party unity and a united political voice to persuade our European partners that “the best pupil in the class” should be awarded the equivalent of a scholarship – appropriate further measures to get us through these difficult times.

There was a healthy debate in the Dáil after the news broke. Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, Mary Lou McDonald of Sinn Féin and Independent TD Shane Ross highlighted the issues with considerable eloquence. Taoiseach Enda Kenny was on the back foot but he held firm and declared his intention to continue pressing Ireland’s case at European level.

There was a further constructive discussion later in the day between Minister for Finance Michael Noonan and his Fianna Fáil opposite number, Michael McGrath. Our political system was weighing up the implications of this serious setback and discussing ways of dealing with the consequences and implications.

Then, out of nowhere, came the shock news of Róisín Shortall’s resignation as a Minister of State. Irreconcilable differences had arisen with her senior colleague in the Department of Health, James Reilly, and clearly she felt she was not getting adequate support from her party leadership.

There are serious matters involved in this dispute: healthcare is literally a life-and-death issue. The dominant narrative has been Shortall’s, with Reilly mounting a rearguard action against charges of favouritism towards his own constituency.

The controversy reminds one irresistibly of the police inspector played by Claude Rains in Casablanca who declares as he enters Humphrey Bogart’s nightclub: “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” Indeed, the term “stroke politics” in the Irish context could be considered a tautology. It’s deplorable, of course, but any minister who wants to get re-elected needs to look to the needs of his political base.

Political survival requires that ministers look to their backyard. Like reformed alcoholics, Fianna Fáil are now preaching the virtues of abstinence in this regard. However, if Reilly sets up a range of primary care centres throughout the State but none in Dublin North, he will be lambasted by rival candidates in the next general election.

Important as the issues were in the Reilly- Shortall stand-off, nevertheless it sidetracked the political system from the main issue of the week and probably the biggest challenge facing the State: our staggering level of indebtedness and how to deal with it, which of course has huge implications on the healthcare front.

One imagines George Mitchell would have taken the two Ministers and their backup teams for a long weekend in a remote country house where their differences could be aired in an atmosphere free from day-to-day pressures and political hype. He might even have persuaded them to see their problems in a broader perspective where society itself is under threat and such public rows, even about serious issues, are essentially a distraction.

Róisín Shortall is widely admired for her sincerity, conviction and hard work, but even strong supporters of hers in the Labour Party were dismayed that she decided to step down and the most ardent fans felt she should have stayed in and faced down James Reilly. To quote a maxim of former British Labour Party leader George Lansbury: “Never resign.”

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