Fionnan Sheahan: Penrose playing parish-pump politics undermines Budget
Published 16/11/2011 | 05:00
WILLIE Penrose's local organisation is the stuff of legend within the Labour Party. He carved out and held a seat for the party in a rural constituency through sheer hard graft.
Tales would reach his colleagues in Leinster House of derring-do on the campaign trail in Westmeath. On one occasion, canvassers came back from knocking on doors in a housing estate in Mullingar.
When Mr Penrose heard that they had only received queries about problems from half-a-dozen houses, he sent them back to do the area again and gave out that they clearly hadn't canvassed it properly.
In a party where TDs in constituencies outside of the cities of Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway were few and far between, his abilities were held in high regard.
The affable barrister is a popular figure within the party and has used his oratorical presence to good effect by bursting into fiery speeches.
However, his attachment to the parish pump did sometimes raise questions over his ability to focus on national questions.
During his time on the Labour frontbench, he appeared happiest when dealing with agriculture and rural issues.
After a less than inspiring term as the party's enterprise spokesman, Mr Penrose was a surprise appointment to the super junior minister position at the cabinet table.
He was a certainty to be made a junior minister, but getting the so-called 'high chair' at Cabinet, ahead of Roisin Shortall and Jan O'Sullivan, raised eyebrows.
Labour sources said Mr Penrose had insisted on the appointment to Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore.
Following the kerfuffle, he has made little impact in the role, despite presiding over a portfolio with ample room for policy development in the wake of the economic crisis.
Mr Penrose's opposition to the potential closure of Columb Barracks in Mullingar emerged as a significant embarrassment to the Government in the summer.
From his early days as a councillor in the 1980s, he had a close association with the barracks, the soldiers and their families. As he put it yesterday, the barracks "is in my DNA".
It was on a shortlist of facilities due to be closed as part of government cutbacks and a desire among army chiefs to reorganise their forces.
Mr Penrose began to threaten that he wouldn't stand for the closure of the barracks and would press his case in Cabinet.
Justice and Defence Minister Alan Shatter was adamant that he was going to opt for closing barracks over reducing army numbers in his attempts to cut costs.
During the presidential election, Fine Gael candidate Gay Mitchell attacked Mr Penrose over his efforts to save the barracks in the face of government cutbacks.
Mr Penrose was continuing to up the ante, speaking at a rally in Mullingar defending Columb Barracks.
Mr Mitchell said it was time for him to "step up to the plate" and "stop playing petty party constituency politics".
He continued: "When you hear ministers getting up and opposing the closure of army barracks in their constituencies, I have to say this is time to step up to the plate and take responsibility for our country and not to be playing local politics.
"We are on the cusp of massive recovery if we do the right things, take the right directions and stop playing petty party constituency politics."
The bizarre intervention from the presidential candidate summed up the Government's plight.
The writing was on the wall for the barracks and the Coalition could not be seen to cave in the face of such public opposition from a Cabinet minister.
The parish pump couldn't be seen to dictate policy.
Despite having plenty of time to save face and back down, Mr Penrose continued to insist locally and at ministerial level that the barracks closure was a make-or-break issue.
The Government held firm and he walked.
From the Coalition's perspective, the resignation is a timely warning to any Fine Gael and Labour TD that local concerns will not hold sway over the requirement to repair the public finances and reform the public service.
Regardless of their rank or service, no TD is going to hold the Coalition to ransom. Newly elected backbenchers can take note of this salutary tale.
Part of the advantage of the Government holding such a substantial majority is that it can afford the attrition that comes with losing a number of TDs over cutbacks.
Without even arriving at a budget vote yet, the Coalition has lost two TDs -- one from each party -- over cutbacks on a local level.
The Government parties haven't even batted an eyelid at the departures.
From the high of seeing Michael D Higgins being inaugurated as President four days earlier, the Labour Party has lost another much-loved comrade.
T HE empathy towards Mr Penrose on a personal level will be outweighed by the view that if he wasn't up to standing by such cuts, the party is better off without him.
Eamon Gilmore now has two promotions to play with -- a junior ministry and a seat at the Cabinet table.
Labour sources hinted that the vacant positions are likely to stay outside of Dublin.
Geography will play a part and the party is already top-heavy with ministers from the capital.
The Tanaiste has shown that personal loyalty won't deflect the party from its aim.
Walking back into Leinster House yesterday, Mr Penrose was seen being commiserated by Fine Gael TD Frank Feighan, who has taken substantial flak locally for standing by the downgrading of Roscommon Hospital.
Each TD has taken their own gamble.