Taoiseach 'left red in face' by heated Cabinet row with Ross on neutrality
Published 23/11/2016 | 02:30
Transport Minister Shane Ross was forced to back down on a demand that he be allowed support a referendum on Ireland's neutrality after a furious Cabinet row with Taoiseach Enda Kenny.
Mr Ross wanted a free vote on a Sinn Féin motion that will come before the Dáil tomorrow, but Mr Kenny was emphatic in refusing the request.
Mr Kenny was left red-faced and even produced a copy of Bunreacht na hÉireann during the dispute that saw a number of ministers intervene to try to defuse the situation.
The motion is an exact replica of one tabled by Sinn Féin in 2013 seeking an amendment to the Constitution to ensure Ireland will not participate in any war or "aid foreign powers in any way in preparation for war".
During the 2013 debate, Mr Ross launched a blistering attack on Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan, saying he was "the greatest advertisement for the abolition of the Department of Foreign Affairs".
He claimed the then-government should object to the use of Shannon Airport by the US military and said: "We're sure not an independent neutral nation whose word is listened to around the world."
Several sources confirmed to the Irish Independent that at yesterday's Cabinet meeting Mr Ross and his Independent Alliance colleague Finian McGrath sought a free vote on the issue.
"They had a reasonable expectation of this as there is no mention of neutrality in the Programme for Government," said a source.
However, Mr Kenny and Mr Flanagan took a "firm stance" on the issue.
Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald, Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe, Finance Minister Michael Noonan and Health Minister Simon Harris all spoke up to encourage both sides to find a formula of words that would allow the Cabinet reach a collective decision.
"The idea that the Government would, in the middle of Brexit and Donald Trump, start into a referendum on neutrality is madness," said one source.
Another noted that once an amendment is added to the Constitution it transfers decision-making powers from the Dáil to the courts.
"For a man who doesn't like judges, he was about to give them a hell of a lot more power."
A third source said Mr Kenny was "red in the face" by the time the two Independent ministers backed down.
It was agreed Mr Flanagan would formally oppose the motion tomorrow night while strongly reaffirming the long-standing tradition of neutrality.
Article 29 of the Constitution already commits Ireland to "the ideal of peace and friendly co-operation amongst nations" and to "the principle of the pacific settlement of international disputes".
The heated Cabinet meeting came just minutes after an "informal" discussion between Mr Kenny and Mr Ross over his persistent criticism of the judiciary, including his claim that some judges may need reminding of their oath.
Mr Kenny told the Dáil that he "made the point that the comments of the minister, Deputy Ross, in respect of judges and the oath they carry were personal and do not reflect the view of the Government".
Mr Ross also came under fire from the Opposition benches yesterday over his refusal to fill 36 vacancies on State boards under his remit.
"No minister can set himself or herself up as a mini-dictator who says no judges will be appointed unless he or she gets his or her way and no one will be appointed to State boards under his or her remit unless he or she gets his or her way terms of reform," Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said.
Labour's Brendan Howlin compared Mr Ross to Donald Trump, saying he was trying to distract from his own "inadequacies".
"He seems to believe that it's best to have distraction. He is Trump-esque.
"Showing us that if you point to somebody else's issues, you can distract from your own."