‘There will be trouble’ over disability Burton warned FG
'They looked for a scapegoat and they found Joan,' Labour accuses Fine Gael
Published 11/12/2011 | 05:00
War has broken out between the two government partners over the controversial cut to disability payments that was dramatically 'paused' by Taoiseach Enda Kenny last week.
The Sunday Independent has been told the cabinet was warned by Social Protection Minister Joan Burton about the likelihood of a ferocious response to the disability cuts. They were told "on several occasions this would lead to trouble'', said a senior government source.
"All sorts of people, ministers, were walking around claiming that they knew nothing. How can they claim that, when it was presented again and again and again?" said one minister.
Another source added: "They knew all about it and went looking for a scapegoat and they found Joan.''
Another figure close to the cabinet also confirmed that "Enda and Eamon knew everything. . . and if they didn't their advisers did.''
Relations between two of the cabinet's most-powerful ministers, Labour's Ms Burton and Finance Minister Michael Noonan, have now reached freezing point.
The Betrayal of a Sacred Trust, Analysis Pages 25-31, 40
The view within senior Labour circles is that Ms Burton was shafted in "a very crude way'' that has "left personal and political scars. This week will not be forgotten''.
Within Labour it is believed that because of the escalating tensions between Mr Noonan and Ms Burton, the Finance Minister may have wanted to "put her in her place, put manners on her, put her in her box''.
A Fine Gael minister has confirmed to the Sunday Independent that it was the Taoiseach who made "the final call on the disability issue".
One Fine Gael minister dismissed the suggestion that there had been any plot. They tartly noted that "there is genuinely a concern that Labour would feel badly done, but it was really Labour's mistakes rather than any strategy of ours that saw them coming out the wrong side of the post-budget debate''.
It is believed that tensions may have escalated between Ms Burton and Mr Noonan over the fact that "both Howlin and Noonan initially wanted very difficult things, far worse than the final outcome, things such as even the free travel, fuel, really swingeing stuff on carers was raised'', while the cabinet was told that the proposals "on Community Employment weren't the wisest thing to do".
The Sunday Independent has also learnt that tension is escalating at the cabinet table over the increasing power of the Economic Management Council, which consists of Mr Kenny, Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore, Mr Noonan and Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin.
One FG minister admitted, "It's acting as a star chamber, makes all the key decisions and then presents them to the cabinet as a fait accompli", while another senior coalition figure said: "A small tight-knit group has taken over the running of the government. No one knows when it meets, no one knows what happens, there are no minutes.''
Concern is particularly high that "none of the big spending departments are on it, it doesn't make sense''.
One senior source told the Sunday Independent: "There are growing concerns that this strange beast of a cabinet within a Cabinet, will be destabilising, it will damage collegiality, people will be sent out whilst those wielding the axe hide behind it.''
In spite of the escalating anger within Labour over Mr Noonan's "gazumping'' of the credit for reversing the disability cuts, senior Labour figures were anxious to note that the overall budget had been a success for Labour.
One noted: "FG originally wanted a three-to-one split when it came to cuts versus tax. We got that down to a 56 per cent to 44 per cent split. We managed to kill the €4.4bn cut proposal. Joan's cuts went down from €840m to €485m. Ruairi Quinn kept the pupil-teacher ratios and the special needs assistants."
Such an analysis is likely to be lost as the war between the partners is spreading far beyond the the cabinet.
Labour backbenchers, in particular, are furious over what they described as Fine Gael's "glory hunting''.
Sources within Labour noted that "it was Labour TDs such as Ged Nash, Arthur Spring and Sean Sherlock who were inside talking to the minister and resolving that issue whilst FG TDs were outside on the plinth talking to every journalist they could find''.
Speaking to the Sunday Independent, Labour TD Mr Nash claimed that "the disability cuts issue had been resolved, we had organised the mechanism with the minister, before the FG TDs even came in the door''.
The view within Labour on the furore was summarised by one TD, who noted "we were quite amused by FG's sudden discovery of their social conscience. A week earlier the same lot had been seeking to cut right, left and centre''.
Significantly, backbenchers were also strongly supportive of Ms Burton.
They noted: "There is no shortage of opportunism here. Revenge is being extracted over her effectiveness in defending her portfolio.''
One TD warned "that line about FG being the social conscience of Labour will not be forgotten'' and added that "she is a formidable figure so FG is obviously intent on cutting her down to size''.
The growing 'Cold War' between FG and Labour was not just confined to Burton versus Noonan, for relations between Health Minister James Reilly and senior Labour ministers are believed to be particularly tense in the wake of Dr Reilly's somewhat florid defence of the cost base of his department.
One minister noted at the time that "Reilly didn't just frighten the TDs, he scared the Cabinet witless with his warnings''.