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Bringing down the House

Children were inadvertently at the heart of two crises which brought down governments – both coalitions,

The narrative of the fall of governments in Ireland in recent decades is unusual in that twice they have broken up over controversies surrounding the rights and place of children in society.

While the right of the child was at the centre of both crises, the two cases were very different and indeed involved very contrasting circumstances. One involved a blinkered and short-sighted attempt to impose value added tax on children’s shoes in the 1980s. The second revolved around the reasons behind unconscionable delays in extraditing a notorious paedophile to Northern Ireland.

The facts of the first are simple. A new Fine Gael and Labour coalition came to power but was an unstable minority arrangement, relying on the support of a few key independents. It was a time of deep recession in Ireland and a tough hairshirt budget was in the offing. When that budget of January 1982 is parsed, it contained many austere and unpalatable measures.

The one that stood out though – even though it was not all that significant in monetary terms – was a decision to impose VAT on clothing and footwear.

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A young John Bruton was finance minister at the time and he displayed massive political misjudgment – comparable to the ill- fated decision in 2008 by a Fianna Fáil-led government to take away medical cards from over-70s.

Bruton decided to change the VAT rating for those items from zero to 18 per cent. The problem was that children’s items were included. Asked why children’s clothing and footwear had not been explicitly excluded, one of the less-than-convincing reasons given by the government is that petite women might find themselves exempted from VAT.

The government fell because some key independents, notably Limerick socialist TD Jim Kemmy, could not support the VAT proposals (he also had misgivings about ending food subsidies). Other independents who had tentatively supported the government including Joe Sherlock and Seán Dublin Bay Loftus also voted against. The upshot was that the vote on the budget was lost, 82-81, precipitating a collapse of government.

The second occurred in November 1994, less than two years into the first coalition government involving Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party. This was a crisis almost unprecedented in its gravity that gripped national attention for many weeks. It also threatened for a while to become a constitutional crisis. There was another upshot – it focused in an unremitting manner on an institutional inertia in dealing with serious abuse cases where children were victims.

The facts of the case are well known. Brendan Smyth, a Norbertine priest, was a serial abuser and predator who had committed a string of heinous sexual crimes against children.* Northern Irish authorities had submitted a request seeking his extradition from the Republic.

However, the request had not been acted upon promptly within the office of the Attorney General. Indeed there was no satisfactory explanation as to why such a serious case had been beset with such long delays. That was all brought into sharp focus by a powerful – and influential – investigative TV documentary on Smyth.

The one figure with whom responsibility ultimately fell was then attorney general Harry Whelehan. It so happened around this time that the office of the president of the High Court became vacant.

Then-taoiseach Albert Reynolds was insistent that Whelehan get the job despite the misgivings of Labour and its leader Dick Spring. Those concerns were exasperated when the Smyth case came to light.

However Reynolds was stubborn and pushed through Whelehan’s appointment over Labour protests. He gambled that the junior coalition party would rather stay in government than face the electorate.

The gamble misfired. The crisis over the Smyth affair was deepening and Spring was about to make it a stand. He told his party’s TDs at a meeting: “At the end of the day, when all other questions have been dealt with, one remains. We have allowed a child abuser to remain at large in our community, when we had it in our power to ensure that he was given up to justice. Is no one to explain why? Is no one to take responsibility? Is no one to account to the people of the country for so grievous a lapse?”

The government did ultimately collapse. In an extraordinary development, Whelehan was forced to resign as a High Court judge within days of being appointed. Attempts to form a new coalition with Fianna Fáil with Bertie Ahern as taoiseach came to nothing after another extradition case emerged where delays were suggested.

Ultimately, a full inquiry was held into the delays in the Smyth case. Politically, a rainbow coalition was formed for the first time, involving Fine Gael, Labour and Democratic Left.

*This article was amended on April 25th 2014 to correct a factual error

Harry McGee

Harry McGee

Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times