Saturday 29 April 2017

Joan treads warily along Enda's political tightrope

Joan Burton was left walking a political tightrope. On the one hand she needed to assert Labour's individual position. On the other, there is the little matter of keeping the Coalition on track
Joan Burton was left walking a political tightrope. On the one hand she needed to assert Labour's individual position. On the other, there is the little matter of keeping the Coalition on track
John Downing

John Downing

THIS Government had big plans for next week which did not include trying to explain Siteserv.

So there was no great surprise last night when Michael Noonan announced the appointment of IBRC special liquidator, Kieran Wallace, to do a preparatory review of the controversial sale and other large transactions handled by the bank which replaced Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide Building Society in July 2011. A review is far from an independent inquiry as sought by Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin. But the clear hope is that the announcement can deliver calm.

Next Tuesday the Government will unveil the so-called "Spring Statement," a trailing of Budget goodies which will be revealed in full next autumn. Trying to explain a convoluted tale featuring a €105m loss to taxpayers is not where Enda Kenny wants to be some 40 weeks from an election.

Apart from the potential for reputational damage for the Government, there is the ever-present danger of opening up a new Fine Gael/Labour fault-line on this issue which became apparent at noon yesterday in the Dáil chamber. With the Taoiseach at an EU leaders' summit in Brussels, it fell to the Tánaiste and Labour leader to handle day three of this controversy, in the wake of a poor showing the two previous days by Mr Kenny.

On Tuesday, the Taoiseach had to kick for touch, say he had not read all last Sunday's newspapers, and would come back with detailed answers later.

On Wednesday, Mr Kenny said he would call in the public spending watchdog, the Comptroller & Auditor General (C&AG). As a line it was hard to argue with it. But the problem emerged bright and early yesterday, as the aforementioned C&AG, Seamus McCarthy, was in Leinster House. And when asked, he said he had no power to look at Siteserv.

A short time later, the Labour leader was left facing a full on onslaught from the Fianna Fáil leader and Ms Burton's own "favourite", Mary Lou McDonald of Sinn Féin. It was opposition happy hunting time: What would Labour, the government watchdogs, do to uphold taxpayers' interests?

Joan Burton was left walking a political tightrope. On the one hand she needed to assert Labour's individual position. On the other, there is the little matter of keeping the Coalition on track.

There followed 45 minutes of political theatre, with plenty of knockabout antics. In summary, Ms Burton wanted to see "an independent review by the competent authority."

The detail on that one took a while longer and several repeat questions from Mr Martin and Ms McDonald. Eventually some 50 minutes later, the Tánaiste's intent became clear: the law could be changed to give the C&AG the necessary powers to look at Siteserv and other similar big transactions.

Or, a special judicial inquiry could be put in train. But there was a quick addendum that the Taoiseach would also like to see this matter inquired into.

The opposition had combined to make Labour and the Tánaiste very uncomfortable. It was ever the lot of the junior coalition partner at times such as this.

But Ms Burton was not without her counterpoints. There were the 1,500 jobs at Siteserv which could be set against the major crux of the controversy, the €5m paid to shareholders at the bust company to sweeten the deal.

There were also several sideswipes at Micheál Martin's days in Fianna Fáil, days which gave us Anglo Irish Bank and a €34bn bill.

Of that we will hear much more in the coming weeks in this game of pass the parcel.

Irish Independent

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