Shortall Resignation: The Government needs a Doctor? Oh God no, not James Reilly!
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“This government is sick”, writes Miriam Lord in today’s Irish Times.
Does it need a doctor? Not James Reilly, surely, who’s continuing his stint as lightning rod for the daily litany of woes besetting the government, of which Roisin Shortall’s shock resignation as Junior Minister in his Department is just the latest twist?
Roisin Shortall’s resignation is a matter of regret, and not just for Joan Burton who, taking Leader’s Questions in the Dail today, expressed that sentiment. It’s regrettable to all of us that a junior minister with responsibility for establishing primary care centres felt she was left with no option but to resign her position.
“The public have a right to expect that decisions on health infrastructure and staffing will be made in the public interest based on health need and not driven by other concerns”, Roisin Shortall said in her resignation statement.
Indeed, the public are entitled to nothing less. The failure of the Minister for Health, James Reilly, to provide a transparent and satisfactory explanation as to why two primary care centres in his constituency – which he had promised to his constituents – found their way onto a list, increased from the original 20 projects Roisin Shorthall had drawn up under criteria of social justice and public need to 35 by the Minister, hardly meets that public requirement. Worse, the two ministers couldn’t work it out between themselves.
The fact that you don’t get on with someone doesn’t mean you can’t work with them – as many of us can attest from our own life experience. All that’s required is that the rules of engagement are clear. In terms of the relationship between a senior and junior Minister, the best way for that to operate is by designation of function. So the junior minister may initiate policy proposals in their own patch. If the senior has a major problem with what the junior wants to do, it’s the senior’s responsibility to explain their misgivings/ concerns/ preferences to the junior and argue the toss so that some political agreement can be reached, everyone is happy, and life goes on. It’s self-evident that this reciprocity was absent in the working relationship between Shorthall and Reilly.
From Roisin Sorthall’s perspective, there was no prospect of it developing in the future. What’s more, it’s reported she felt isolated by the lack of support from the Labour senior ministers, with Quinn and Rabbitte, in particular, publicly endorsing Reilly’s performance as Health Minister in recent days. Such internal party wrangling aside, the Minister for Health is primarily responsible for placing Roisin Shortall in a position where she felt the only honourable course left open to her was to resign her portfolio and the Labour parliamentary whip, a decision which plunges her own party into crisis.
The problem for the Labour leadership is the Budget in December. If, as anticipated, that Budget sets in train further cuts in health services and social welfare entitlements there are many among the new Labour TDs who may find it too bitter a pill to swallow. With a strong personality like Roisin Shorthall in Labour Party limbo, along with Willie Penrose and former backbenchers, Tommy Broughan and Patrick Nulty, likely defectors now have somewhere to go. The chances are that they would carry their local party activists with them, providing a nucleus for the formation of ‘The Alternative Labour Party’.
The difficulty for the senior Labour Ministers is that they have no real choice except to back their senior colleague in Cabinet, James Reilly, unless they are in a position to effectively demand his resignation.
As Deputy Leader of Fine Gael, and a close confidante of the Taoiseach, Dr. Reilly’s position is further secured. If he were to lose his job as Health Minister, the Taoiseach’s own position would be weakened. If Dr. Reilly had to depart, the spotlight would rapidly switch to his colleague, Phil Hogan, Minister for the Environment, whose recent antics in relation to the housing of a traveller family in his own constituency have raised more than a few eyebrows. As Environment Minister, he also has responsibility for housing, which makes his intervention in that case all the more reprehensible.
But if both of these central figures in the Fine Gael administration were to come unstuck, the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, would have just cause to feel uneasy about his own position and the government itself would be destabilised.