Monday 24 July 2017

Questions for Arts Minister remain as party's latest scandal drags on

Sympathy for Heather Humphreys will not last forever

QUESTIONS: Arts Minister Heather Humphreys
QUESTIONS: Arts Minister Heather Humphreys
Daniel McConnell

Daniel McConnell

Last Wednesday night, Arts Minister Heather Humphreys stood to address her Fine Gael colleagues about the John McNulty controversy, but did something that shocked those gathered in the party's room.

Breaking with the accepted custom, she chose to read out a prepared script rather than speaking unaided.

"It was bizarre. This was a behind-closed-doors meeting where people are expected to speak their minds, not read out a speech. It looked awful," said one TD.

A popular back-bencher who is a likeable personality, Humphreys has found herself at the heart of a cronyism scandal which has engulfed her, her leader and her party.

Seen as a straight-up moral individual, Humphreys is known to be sore at any suggestion that her integrity is in any way compromised.

Her poor performance in the room on Wednesday came in the wake of a couple of unsteady media outings which led to questions as to her suitability for Cabinet.

But there were also fears that the toll of the controversy was becoming too much for a well-respected, honourable member of the party.

"Whatever you feel about her getting into Cabinet, there is a lot of unhappiness as to Enda's throwing of her under the bus," said one senior TD.

But while the new minister has been granted a pardon so far by her sympathetic colleagues, such grace is likely to be short lived.

Humphreys, who was elected in the Cavan-Monaghan constituency in 2011, still has a number of questions that need to be answered as to her role in the affair.

She accepts that she appointed John McNulty and Sheila O'Regan to the board of the Irish Museum of Modern Art (Imma) after representations from an unnamed Fine Gael party official or officials.

There remains a lack of clarity around the precise basis of how the two names came into play.

She has also claimed she did not know that O'Regan was a member of Fine Gael. Fine Gael Limerick TD Patrick O'Donovan said he thought Ms O'Regan was a suitable candidate for any cultural boards. However, Ms Humphreys's spokeswoman said the minister was not aware of Ms O'Regan's connections when she appointed her to Imma. Mr O'Donovan and Ms Humphreys are friends. "She didn't know she was a Fine Gael member at all," she said. "Not in any way." There is no question that Ms O'Regan is qualified to be an Imma board member.

The Arts Minister also has yet to credibly explain why she would defy a stated Government policy of reducing board numbers by adding the two names to the Imma board.

But most importantly, her refusal to divulge the name of the Fine Gael official or officials involved for fear of a witch-hunt, raises a credibility problem.

Her insistence this is an internal Fine Gael matter is also not credible given the affairs of Government have been overshadowed for almost two weeks now as a result of those appointments.

Her failure to adequately answer questions has been seized upon by the opposition, who see her as vulnerable.

Speaking this weekend, Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin said: "The minister at the centre of the controversy, Heather Humphreys continues to refuse to explain her actions in the Dail or answer questions from the nation's media. The minister's current strategy of evasion is either supported by the Taoiseach or directly ordered by him and I would like to know which it is. Her refusal to provide it is leading to increased speculation about how damaging the information is and raising ever louder questions about the minister's own future," Mr Martin said.

Sunday Independent

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