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Saturday 25 March 2017

Quinn on attack over do-nothing ministers

And Fine Gael warns Gilmore 'to develop backbone' as split widens

Jody Corcoran and  Daniel McConnell

EDUCATION Minister Ruairi Quinn has told a meeting of the Cabinet that the Government is not acting quickly enough and must urgently get on with the task of implementing "difficult decisions", the Sunday Independent has learned.

Citing "cabinet confidentiality", Mr Quinn yesterday declined an offer to elaborate on his comments, made at a meeting of the Government on Tuesday. But his intervention is being interpreted by Fine Gael as directed more towards Labour than Fine Gael ministers.

The remarks by Mr Quinn, a former Finance Minister, are said by a government source to have been met with a "mixed reaction", an indication that ministers are divided as to the pace required to lift the country out of economic crisis.

Last night a source close to Mr Quinn, who last week signalled that college fees are to be reinstated, was anxious to stress that "any comments the minister may have made" were supported by Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

However, a senior Fine Gael source told the Sunday Independent yesterday that Labour leader Eamon Gilmore "needs to develop a backbone".

And this prominent figure also maintained that Social Protection Minister Joan Burton, who has been asked to tackle the issue of social welfare fraud, was one of the ministers Mr Quinn had in mind -- but Mr Quinn has refused to confirm this.

A Labour source, meanwhile, disputed whether the comment was directed entirely towards Labour ministers rather than the Cabinet collectively.

In Life magazine today, Ms Burton has reiterated her determination to get to grips with the issue of social welfare fraud, which is reported to cost the Exchequer in excess of €1bn a year.

But in a comment which illustrates the political sensitivity of the issue for Labour, she also said: "The Social Welfare portfolio is probably the critical portfolio. It's always been seen as a very significant portfolio for the Labour Party." In a wide-ranging interview, Ms Burton also intimated that the alleged abuse of the lone-parent allowance system was an area she intended to focus us.

The Government is more than three-quarters of the way into its first 100 days in office, a target date set by Mr Kenny by which significant achievements would be made.

It is now clear, however, that as the Government emerges from a lengthy honeymoon period, there is growing concern at Cabinet level that the achievements to date have fallen some way short of expectations.

A Sunday Independent/ Quantum Research poll has found that 58 per cent of the public are satisfied at progress towards economic recovery while 42 per cent are dissatisfied.

Asked which party was doing more to bring about recovery, the public said Fine Gael (73 per cent) and Labour (27 per cent); asked which party was most likely to take hard decisions to achieve recovery, the public said Fine Gael (72 per cent) and Labour (28 per cent).

The intervention at Cabinet of Mr Quinn comes as differences between Fine Gael and Labour on the structural reforms to reduce costs in the economy, and the necessity for a property tax, have been made public.

Official Government sources have attempted to put those differences down to procedural and communication issues. It now seems, however, that tensions between the coalition partners are of a more fundamental nature.

A Government source told the Sunday Independent: "Last Tuesday Ruairi Quinn told the Cabinet that not enough difficult decisions were being made. He said these tough decisions needed to be front-loaded.

"He said ministers should be making the difficult decisions now, and that it was not good enough to be waiting for the second half of the Government's term as some ministers seem to want to do."

A senior Fine Gael source said: "Gilmore is obsessed with Sinn Fein, how he feels he needs to protect his left flank from Sinn Fein."

While Fine Gael sources are anxious to state that the cohesion of the Government remains "sound", and to stress that there was "no deliberate attempt to undermine the Cabinet", it is now clear that a certain frustration at the pace of events exists between the coalition partners.

One senior Fine Gael figure said: "Labour is concerned with process, and bringing the people with them, and while process is important, the result is more important. If real progress is being frustrated by Labour and the unions, then clearly it will be of annoyance to us in Fine Gael."

Another senior Fine Gael figure went further: "We have to get results sooner rather than later, otherwise there will be real carnage.

"The EU-IMF won't keep giving us money if we don't stay on target. I feel some on the Labour side are not willing to accept that."

Asked in Life magazine today what she thought were the greatest frauds associated with social welfare, Ms Burton said: "I think there are structures in social welfare like the lone-parent system.

"You are saying to yourself that somebody is parenting on their own in their 20s and they won't be in a live-in relationship for the rest of their lives. That strikes me as being either very pessimistic or very optimistic. I don't know which."

Sunday Independent

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