News Analysis

Thursday 28 August 2014

Reilly, like the rest of the grumpy gang, talks big and delivers small

Published 14/10/2012 | 05:00

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Health Minister has survived because the Taoiseach can't afford for his deputy to fail, writes John Drennan

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IT would be hard to find a more appropriate summary of the journey Enda Kenny's famous 'democratic revolution' has endured than the revelation that Brendan Howlin is planning to abolish the underwear allowance for female soldiers.

During the halcyon days of opposition our Grumpy Old Men were kings who would burn the world's bondholders.

In government, though, they're only fit to go to war over the undergarments of our female soldiers.

Sadly, when it comes to the declining state of the 'democratic revolution', Mr Howlin's attack on the knickers is not the worst of it.

That special position is, instead, reserved for James Reilly.

Enda Kenny may have said after the election in 2011, while he was still technically in Opposition, that "Paddy likes to know the story".

Last week, however, in an all too typical display of braggadocio, the twin political brothers Kenny and Reilly praised two bureaucrats for their ironclad determination to ensure 'Paddy', or in this case the Public Accounts Committee, knew as little of the story as possible.

Outside of the PAC, there was a ceasefire on the James Reilly front last week as the political elite and a limp-wristed Opposition decided to move on in search of easier prey.

But though Reilly might have secured a great escape on the curious tale of how those primary care centres ended up in the constituency of the Taoiseach's close political ally, the real status of the minister was summarised by the contented comment of one ambitious minister that "Dr Reilly hasn't gone away, you know".

Dr Reilly's 'colleague' did not mean it in a nice way.

It is a measure of how the times have changed that during that embarrassing time of post-Biffo innocence it might have been thought a good thing were James Reilly to be the most high-profile figure in this Government.

The hope back then was that after the absentee era of Mary Harney, the new minister would be a latter-day Noel Browne who would shine a reforming light into the closed world of the HSE which in its embrace of inefficiency, deference to vested interests and indifference to any form of accountability represented the apotheosis of the misgovernment of the Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrats era.

Sadly, whilst Dr Reilly has certainly become the highest profile face of this administration, this has not turned out to be such a good thing.

Few back in 2011 would have opposed the new minister's plan to wrestle an un-controlled HSE to its knees, but Reilly's uncouth secretive political style means he, rather than the HSE, has resembled a scrub bull in a fine china shop.

The HSE might have needed to have a chainsaw taken to its head, but Reilly failed to purify the toxic thing which he inherited.

Instead he replaced the poison of unaccountability with the similar virus of the sort of ministerial dominance where the head of the HSE is essentially perceived to be the minister's 'pick'.

That, however, is not the end of it when it comes to the many political misadventures of this political Doctor Hyde.

Outside of primary care centre debacles Enda's 'democratic revolution' is surely in a queer place when the former Secretary General of Health carefully writes up a set of minutes detailing how Reilly had to be told it was inappropriate for the minister's private secretary to involve himself in work of a political nature.

The 'democratic revolution', alas, found itself in an even queerer place courtesy of the observation that Dr Reilly was also not "necessarily accepting of the distinction between departmental work and political work".

When it comes to Dr Reilly's ongoing blustering about the primary care centres and whatever else is to inevitably come, some would think such 'confusion' sounds more like something from the Bertie Ahern pork barrel era, than Enda's brave new 'democratic revolution'.

In spite of all these woes the strangest of miracles has happened for Dr Reilly, far from being sacked, has evolved into the political equivalent of Anglo Irish Bank for, like our bust banks, the Taoiseach has invested too much political capital in Fine Gael's Dr Hyde for the Reilly project to fail.

Democratic revolutions are all well and good, but to sack Reilly now would leave the 'Dear Leader' looking far too like one of those foolish burnt shareholders who invested when the boom was at its height.

But the intention of our Tammy Wynette of a Taoiseach and his Labour chorus girl to stand by their man is not without its consequences.

Poor Dicey Reilly may now be too big a political project to fail but he is also an eternal political promissory note and the misfortunate news for this administration is that both wings of the Grumpy Old Men will be paying for his adventures for some time.

Labour's motives for saving Private Reilly are, in fairness, somewhat colder for the turning of a Fine Gael minister into a broken reed has come at the very small price of the loss of a Roisin Shortall.

The smart old boys in Labour know that Reilly is political credit in the Banco del Coalition where, if FG ever dares to come after one of Labour's own then all they have to do is cite the Reilly precedent and everyone will turn very quiet.

We have been living in a very different place to that much promised land of democratic reform for some time and James, or Jim as cabinet friends like Ruairi call him, is not the only queer location where the 'Dear Leader's' 'democratic revolution' has ended up.

Dr Reilly may have entered office in an over-confident state, acted ineptly in tackling the crisis once he discovered how big it actually was, and is now busying himself taking the easiest options available, but his flaws are merely those of the Government writ upon a large bearded carcass.

Last week's revelations about the refusal experienced by those attempting to discover what representations were made by the banks on Alan Shatter's half-alive, half-dead Insolvency Bill was as fine an efflorescence of the culture of secrecy this Government has so enthusiastically adopted as anything seen under the Haughey era.

Maeve Sheehan See Facing Page

Those expecting Enda's 'democratic revolution' must also be wondering why, presumably because of an ongoing hissy fit with the voters over the rejection of the Dail Inquiries referendum, this Government appears to be hindering the establishment of an inquiry into a banking crisis it wasn't even responsible for, with even greater enthusiasm than the Fianna Fail party that caused it.

Nothing has epitomised the capacity of this Government to, like Dr Reilly, talk big and deliver small than the ongoing issues of our promissory notes and the entangled crisis of our banking debt.

Last week, Shane Ross raised this particular spectre, as he wondered if that seismic deal had actually been a "phantom".

In spite of Enda's best attempts to talk the entire debacle up with vague promises about promissory notes, it looked as though someone at the EU poker table is spoofing -- and our money is on the 'Comeback Kid'.

Back in our domestic kindergarten, Dr Reilly is now, alas, only astonishing by virtue of his survival.

Those of us who were unfortunate enough to witness the grandiose follies of the Biffo era may have thought we would never be surprised by anything again.

But it is, even to our jaded eyes, incomprehensible that the incompetence of a politician would render him impervious to any form of accountability lest it bruise the delicate ego of the Taoiseach who picked him.

One supposes Dr Reilly can chuckle at such an unlikely turn of fate. The rest of us can only, like the poor creatures in Animal Farm, look and wonder just when did Labour and Fine Gael, which in fairness always had a bit of the Soldier of Destiny gene in it, turn into Fianna Fail.

Sunday Independent

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