CABINET ministers are this weekend fighting like "cats and dogs" in the wake of last week's Budget, with fresh speculation centring on the future of Health Minister James Reilly.
But such is the crisis surrounding Dr Reilly that Taoiseach Enda Kenny and his key officials have been forced to take a "hands-on" role in the running of the health sector.
"Reilly's authority is shot, he is a protectorate of Brendan [Howlin] and Enda and not even the master in his own house. Reilly is now essentially the Junior Minister for Health," one senior source told the Sunday Independent.
Ms Fitzgerald said: "He is not isolated, there is no question of that."
Following the Budget, she said: "There is no isolation of any figure in Cabinet. These were collegiate decisions, among Fine Gael and Labour, and around the cabinet table."
Dr Reilly's relationship with Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin has been "severely damaged" by this year's Budget process, which saw a number of cuts targets merely enforced on Health with no discussion.
The Sunday Independent has learnt that an embattled Dr Reilly told a Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting last week that given the cuts of €3bn in Health, the system is near breaking point, indicating "we are now down to the bone", and if cuts continue lives will be jeopardised.
"As a doctor, I will not stand over the dismantling of the health system," he said.
One TD said: "At the meeting, Health was the only bad news. Reilly did his best to defend his patch, but it was poor, especially when speaking about the medical card. Of course it is the area of most concern to TDs."
The figure of €113m in medical card probity savings was arrived at merely by picking a halfway point between €60m and €200m – the range of possible savings identified by consultants PwC, it has been confirmed.
HSE chief executive Tony O'Brien last week revealed that out of €150m in Haddington Road savings identified by Mr Howlin's officials for this year, just €105m would be delivered. Mr O'Brien also said that staff numbers in the health service at the end of the year would exceed 100,000, which he said was "in excess of the target set by DPER (the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform)".
Yet the political backlash against Dr Reilly is now threatening to spread to the Government as a whole, and there was widespread anger voiced last night about his handling of the health crisis.
More than a dozen Fine Gael TDs expressed to the Sunday Independent their concern at the failure of Dr Reilly to properly clarify the controversy around the stated savings of €113m from medical cards. For such savings to be achieved, up to 150,000 people could lose their cards.
Several TDs said the medical card fiasco was causing widespread public concern in their constituencies.
Dr Reilly now stands isolated from his fellow ministers and was described last night as being on "political death row". One Labour Cabinet minister said: "At this stage, we just want him gone, he is a total disaster."
Asked last night if he believed Labour sources were targeting Dr Reilly, Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte said: "I genuinely don't believe that to be true. But if it is true, then I believe it to be unfair."
Mr Rabbitte added: "At a time when the population is growing, and investment is diminishing, James Reilly is expected to work miracles, apparently. I just don't think that is reasonable."
Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney added: "James is a straight shooter, not a slick PR manager. He has done a very good job with very, very limited room to manoeuvre.
"The thing to remember is that James is not a natural politician – he is a medical doctor, and an incredibly decent human being as well."
Writing in today's Sunday Independent, independent TD for Dublin South Shane Ross said the crisis in Health is already unravelling the figures upon which the Budget was based.
"Yesterday the Budget arithmetic was rapidly unravelling, particularly in the Health sector. It makes you wonder. The axeman could be back by Christmas," he said.
Such is Dr Reilly's low standing, even among his own party, that speculation is rising in government circles that he could be named as Ireland's next EU Commissioner.
Dr Reilly still retained the support of the Taoiseach. One source noted, however, that "the problem for Enda is that he can't reshuffle him into another ministry, he really is only designed for Health."
Meanwhile, Mr Rabbitte has come under fire from his own party colleagues over the €5m cut in the amount the Departmental of Social Protection pays towards pensioners' free TV licence.
Labour's communications spokesman in the Seanad, John Whelan, told the Sunday Independent: "I am a bit miffed at Rabbitte taking a cut at his Labour Cabinet colleague. I'd much rather that RTE take this hit than the country's hard-pressed pensioners, so I don't understand the rationale for Mr Rabbitte's public swipe at Joan Burton.
"The role of the Social Protection Minister is to look after widowers, pensioners and children rather than well- heeled Montrose mandarins."
Also, Labour TDs and senators are deeply unhappy at draconian attempts by party leader and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore to discipline TDs and senators he suspects are leaking critical stories to the press.
The Sunday Independent has learnt that Mr Gilmore recently told the Labour parliamentary party that he plans to bring in a "code of conduct with range of sanctions for those who are leaking against Labour''.
Mr Gilmore's hardline approach comes in the wake of growing criticism of his partner in Government, Taoiseach Enda Kenny's authoritarian style of leadership, which was blamed by some for the defeat of the referendum to abolish the Seanad.
- Daniel McConnell and John Drennan