Gloves off' as FG block Coughlan's job mission
Kenny's shift on Dail vote pact forces Tanaiste to cancel trip
FINE GAEL last night blocked Tanaiste Mary Coughlan from going on a jobs and education mission to the US by forcing her to stay at home for Dail votes.
The main opposition party withdrew its crucial 'pairing' agreement on votes. Up to now, the opposition had usually agreed to reduce its voting numbers to match those of absent government members or ministers.
But the Fine Gael move marks a major shift in tactics as it heaps pressure on a Government now reliant on a slim majority of two.
The party's education spokesman Fergus O'Dowd said last night: "The gloves are off now with this Government."
Cabinet ministers strongly criticised the development, claiming Ms Coughlan's trip had been planned for up to eight months.
They said it was designed to create jobs and investment and foster closer academic links between the US and Ireland.
Last night, officials were frantically apologising to contacts in the US, amid fears the last-minute cancellations would damage relations and job prospects.
As Education Minister, Ms Coughlan was due to lead a mission to Boston, Chicago and St Louis to promote Ireland as a study destination.
She was also scheduled to meet economic investors and business contacts. Now she has been forced to cancel her plans.
Fine Gael's pairing strategy change was first flagged by leader Enda Kenny at his party's 'think-in' in Co Waterford earlier this month.
Pairings are usually given when ministers are away on official business. It means an opposition TD will not vote in the Dail to allow for the missing minister. But in this case, Fine Gael refused to extend that courtesy, as the party homed in on the Fianna Fail-led Government's slender majority.
It is understood that staff in Enterprise Ireland, which arranged the trip, were making calls to cancel Ms Coughlan's meetings and apologise.
IDA Ireland was also involved, asking the Tanaiste to use her stop-off in Chicago to brief senior investors in Ireland on the economy -- and to use the Boston leg of the journey to meet senior business people and philanthropists.
Ironically, Fine Gael's enterprise spokesman Richard Bruton yesterday said unemployment and the emigration crisis would be top of the party's agenda when the Dail resumes.
Mr Bruton said the party would use its first Dail motion of the new term to highlight its jobs plan.
Fine Gael last night defended the move to block the Tanaiste's trip, with Mr O'Dowd arguing that he wanted to quiz Ms Coughlan during education questions on Wednesday on the FAS spending scandals.
"That trip could have been taken any time during the last two to three months," he said.
He claimed that if Ms Coughlan missed this week's question session in the Dail, she would not be available again until November. He insisted she had to be "personally accountable to the Dail" and said he wanted to ask about three separate audits into FAS.
"She fixed the date for Wednesday for her questions, nobody else would have decided that," he added.
But Enterprise Minister Batt O'Keeffe said the Fine Gael move was "short-sighted and unpatriotic".
"Fine Gael has chosen to put narrow party interest above the national interest. This is a time for country first, party second," he said.
The Dail returns this Wednesday, and Fine Gael is moving the writ on all three outstanding by-elections -- in Waterford, Donegal South-West and Dublin South -- to try to embarrass the Government into holding them.
The Coalition is likely to lose all three, making its majority in the Dail even more precarious.