Reilly loses credibility at Cabinet over cuts tactics
HEALTH Minister James Reilly's scaremongering on health cuts has "cost him credibility" around the Cabinet table, while Social Protection Minister Joan Burton has managed to "burn sympathy" among colleagues, the Irish Independent can reveal.
Dr Reilly's pre-Budget antics raised serious question marks over his abilities, while Ms Burton had to be bypassed in deciding on cuts, according to coalition insiders.
Now, as the Government heads into its first full year, the ministers in charge of the two highest-spending departments are under pressure to deliver results.
There are rumblings among colleagues about Dr Reilly's relative political inexperience, while Ms Burton is regarded as having a "persecution complex".
Cabinet clashes got increasingly personal in recent months as the honeymoon period for the coalition of Labour and Fine Gael came to an abrupt halt – although sources played down any major rifts between the parties.
“There are no real tensions over policy – that’s all exaggerated. It’s more to do with personalities,” a minister said. Dr Reilly’s behaviour in the run-up to the Budget, deliberately leaking a doomsday list of potential cuts, badly hit the way he is viewed by fellow ministers.
He warned about a €50 medical card tax, a hike in prescription charges, and the widespread closure of hospitals. But a cabinet colleague said his handling of the negotiations “cost him credibility”. “He doesn’t get it. He says something with conviction but that conviction seems to change. It raises question marks,” said a coalition source. “He raised fears about stuff that was never going to happen. This is just one Budget.
Even if it did work this year, and I don’t believe it did, you’ve got to come along next year (and handle another Budget).” Doubts over Dr Reilly’s judgment were also cast when he claimed that two of the country’s largest hospitals, in Limerick and Galway, were to come under private-sector control – which ended up in a U-turn. He has also dithered on accident and emergency units, hospitals staying within budget and the break-up of the VHI. Ministers are now pointing to his lack of experience as a latecomer to politics.
“I think he has been given a virtually impossible job – reform the health service and cut spending at the same time. James isn’t around politics as long as the rest of us,” a minister said. Disclosures of Dr Reilly’s fraught relationship with the junior minister in the Department of Health, Roisin Shortall, have not helped his cause either.
One minister spoke of having difficulties with the junior minister in their own department “but you don’t see any of that out in public”. Similar to Dr Reilly, Ms Burton had enjoyed a great deal of support from colleagues. Among the significant reforms she is planning are a single payment for working age unemployed people; loss of benefits for those who refuse a job or training; and changes to child benefit payment.
But a minister said: “She has a great capacity to describe the problem, but not necessarily in fixing it. It amazes me she gets such an easy ride in the media.” And another colleague said: “Alliances you build up at Cabinet are important in the medium term. She has a tough task but you also burn sympathy.” Ms Burton’s attempts to play out the Budget negotiations in the media annoyed colleagues in both Labour and Fine Gael – even if the cuts to social welfare were ultimately reduced from €700m to €450m.
“She was the first to break ranks and go to the media. That’s the old way of doing things. The result was education and health took a bigger hit than should have happened. “There was a lot of hard work done behind the scenes. Fine Gael and Labour ministers were keen to examine it. But she feels she is a lone voice.”
It all resulted in the Cabinet’s economic sub-committee “bringing in civil servants from the Department of Social Welfare to finalise the Budget”. The view that Ms Burton has a “persecution complex” comes from both coalition parties. “There is no doubt about it. She thinks everybody is out to get her,” another minister said. Mr Shatter is also a source of some of the clashes but is generally well thought of on a professional level, with colleagues regarding him as effective.
“Shatter rubs people up the wrong way but is coming with a reform agenda and getting on with it,” a minister said. The minister does not take kindly to being asked to explain his position, according to a number of sources. “He doesn’t like being asked but his answers are 100pc. He talks too much. Definitely on his own issues, he can be long-winded.”
But a separate source added: “Say what you want, but Shatter is getting what he wants.” However, other ministers were praised – after a slow start, Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin is making an impact. “I think he is excellent. It is great for relations with Fine Gael to have him there getting on with the job,” one cabinet minister said. Education Minister Ruairi Quinn’s “experience” is contrasted with that of Dr Reilly and Ms Burton.
Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney is also making a positive impression, “quietly, under the radar”.