News John Drennan

Thursday 18 September 2014

FG minister under fire but Labour is hit

The junior coalition partner suffered the most as the Opposition took aim over the GSOC debacle, writes John Drennan

Published 23/02/2014 | 02:30

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Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton. Photo: Frank Mc Grath

A WEEK, at the best of times, can be a long time in politics – but for the current Coalition the evolution of the obscure GSOC 'bother' into the first visceral domestic crisis to strike at the heart of this administration must have felt like a month.

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The Opposition, in contrast, was buoyant at the rare delight, after almost three years of confused impotence, of securing a hit a very palpable [political] hit'.

In fact, such an analysis probably understates the extent of the damage – for more hits were inflicted on the Coalition than you would see in The Godfather.

Apart from the Justice Minister, the list of casualties included the Social Protection Minister Joan Burton, Pat Rabbitte and the Labour Party.

In a week that shook the Coalition to the core in a manner that has not been seen in domestic matters in this Dail, even the ever more cunning 'King Enda' looked less than surefooted.

In contrast, in an intriguing indicator of how the political future might unfold, the accidental entente cordiale of Micheal Martin and Mary Lou McDonald seriously embarrassed the Government.

Ultimately the big winner in this affair was the Fianna Fail leader – for it was Martin who, almost unnoticed, saw the loose runner in the GSOC affair was the Oliver Connolly transcript.

The accelerating confusion over the nature of the alleged bugging of GSOC meant the voters had become disengaged on that front.

It did, however, create a public mood that was receptive to a belated analysis of the astonishing exchanges between the Garda Confidential Recipient and the whistleblower Maurice McCabe.

It is perhaps a measure of the deteriorating quality of our public discourse that it took so long for the issue to catch fire, but the political heather is certainly blazing now.

The flames were fanned even further by the politically cunning decision by Martin to personally deliver a dossier of alleged garda malpractice to the Taoiseach.

The decision was a game-changer – from now on 'Dear Leader' Enda has no capacity to distance himself in his increasingly son-of-Bertie style, for his fingerprints are now all over the future evolution of this crisis.

Intriguingly, Kenny was distancing himself from his Justice Minister in that subtle gnomic way that he appears to have learnt from Bertie Ahern.

Of course, Mr Shatter has been the most high-profile victim – for the vigour of the Coalition's public declarations of confidence are only matched by the fervour of the private curses over the mess a minister who has all of the worst and none of the best traits of Willie O'Dea, has landed them in.

His status as one of the men who stood in the gap of the Fine Gael 'Alamo' in 2010 when Kenny was at his weakest means the Justice Minister is almost unsackable.

But he has lost control of the political narrative to such an extent that were another ignored whistleblower to emerge from the garda undergrowth, Mr Shatter's position would be untenable.

From a standing start where the GSOC controversy could have been resolved with a little diplomacy, the Justice Minister is now very much at the mercy of lady luck.

And were karma a real concept, the minister's luck would be out for the sacking of Oliver Connolly looks like a piece of uncouth political scapegoating where the smallest castaway is thrown over the side of the sinking ship in the hope that it might appease the sharks.

The bad news for Mr Shatter – who often appears to be somewhat of a slow learner in the art of politics – is that throwing a small body overboard often attracts even more political fins in the hope that something juicier might be coming next.

While Mr Shatter cuts a pretty woebegone figure in the wake of the scenario where the hand of a retired judicial nurse had to be clutched in the hope that it might guide him out of the political razor wire, the biggest problem the Justice Minister may face is that once again it was Labour which was copping the political flak for a Fine Gael mistake.

Two of the central political strategies of Labour in government have been to be seen to be good coalition partners and to allow each party to sort out its own internal house-keeping when ministers get into trouble.

Though it seemed to be a good idea in theory, the practice, given that Fine Gael appears to have a lot more incompetent ministers than their 'uncivil partners', has not been so good.

This was particularly evident last week. From the moment it backed the inquiry U-turn, Labour resembled the innocent bystander who attempts to break up a riot and ends up getting a far worse thumping than the actual instigators.

Surprisingly, the highest profile victim was one of Labour's few wily foxes, Joan Burton, who was chopped up by Martin and Mary Lou.

Fine Gaelers could scarcely conceal their grins at the spectacle of Joan defending Mr Shatter as Enda, almost simultaneously began to swiftly distance himself from a minister who is palpably not in control of the half a dozen crises rampaging through his unruly department.

It is, of course, always difficult to end up spilling your own blood over another man's wound but, whilst Burton was palpably uneasy with Shatter's political shenanigans, the cameras were on shouting Joan rather than the Justice Minister.

In fairness, Joan was not the only minister to emerge damaged by the embrace of the politics of the herd.

Pat Rabbitte took a couple of hits whilst Michael Noonan's foolhardy attempt to blame the Fianna Fail government of 2007 for the alleged inaction of the current was the latest of a number of recent intimations that the minister's previously nimble dancing political feet may be slowing down.

The Social Protection Minister was the one who was most deeply wounded of all – for she is seen as representing the voice of the citizen at a cabinet table of detached, mostly Grumpy Old Men.

Last week, however, Ms Burton lined up with the apparatchiks, and she and Labour were visibly wounded by the decision.

If there is one bonus from Labour's, post conference week, it is that a valuable lesson is on offer.

The key reason why cliches endure is that that they tend to be correct and one of the most enduring cliches, particularly when it comes to coalitions with Fine Gael, is that nice guys (and girls) tend to finish last.

Last week's embroilment in a controversy that it had nothing to do with was part of an ongoing trend where the party is being far too nice for its own good, with a Fine Gael party that is allowing its 'Fianna Fail-lite Dr Hyde' gene to increasingly gain the upper hand.

If Labour wants to continue to give Fine Gael a free run on everything – from the garnering by Enda Kenny of any credit for jobs and growth to the gold-plated delights of Irish Water and the misadventures of Mr Shatter – it will undoubtedly enjoy pleasant relations of a servile sort with its partners.

Such a degree of innocuous invisibility will, however, make it all the easier for a vengeful electorate to make Labour the scapegoat.

As for Mr Shatter, should Labour learn, after the GSOC crisis, that nice coalition partners always finish out of the medals, last week may only be the end of the beginning of the Justice Minister's woes.

Sunday Independent

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