Thursday 25 December 2014

Flannery's resignation takes the heat off a government tiring of explaining

Published 11/03/2014 | 02:30

Frank Flannery. Photo: Collins
Frank Flannery. Photo: Collins

FRANK Flannery's falling on his sword yesterday came as little surprise. In hindsight, it was probably inevitable from the moment Angela Kerins turned up at the Public Accounts Committee without any member of the board and/or remuneration committee in tow.

It was an extraordinary miscalculation (not Rehab's first).

If a couple of senior board members had accompanied Kerins, the absence of Flannery – who let's not forget left a full-time position in Rehab eight years ago – probably wouldn't have been a major deal.

Instead, Kerins attended with two of her management team – who weren't in a position to answer key questions about pay and pensions. Flannery then compounded matters with a visible, and highly unwise, presence on the same day elsewhere in Leinster House.

It antagonised the PAC and, given some of the personnel currently on the committee, that's the political equivalent of stirring up a hornet's nest. Now Flannery, Rehab and, to some extent, Enda Kenny and Fine Gael, have all got badly stung.

The senior government party has been acutely conscious for months of the potential for Rehab to cause it problems, given the close associations between the two.

And in recent days, Flannery – a hugely influential figure behind the scenes in Fine Gael for decades – seems to have become something of an embarrassment to the party he served so faithfully.

How else can one explain the shortage of senior party figures coming out to back him?

You don't get to exercise the kind of influence on election strategy that Flannery did for so long without standing on a few toes along the way. Despite his courteous and gentlemanly demeanour, there are plenty of people in Fine Gael who were not enamoured with his 'backroom' role in the party.

Even the Taoiseach, who has depended heavily on him for counsel and strategic thinking, was quick to stress that Frank Flannery should appear before the Public Accounts Committee.

He could simply have said that the Rehab chairman or another member of the group's remuneration committee should attend. But he specifically said his old ally should do so.

The message was crystal clear.

The revelations over the weekend of Flannery being paid thousands by Rehab to lobby the Government and various departments only intensified the pressure.

Ministers, perhaps naively, were genuinely surprised at the story. They obviously knew he had lobbied on behalf of Rehab, but believed any such work was being done in his capacity as a non-executive director.

In other years, the disclosure of his consultancy fees would barely have raised an eyebrow. But in the current climate – with charities under scrutiny like never before – it proved toxic.

Moreover, there was the fact that Flannery – as a senior, though unpaid, adviser to Fine Gael – would have almost unrivalled access to coalition figures.

The notion of such an influential figure being paid to lobby that coalition was an uncomfortable one.

SENIOR ministers argued privately with some merit yesterday that any lobbying was clearly unsuccessful as Rehab's budget was cut like everybody else's and Alan Shatter "didn't give an inch" on the ending of the Charitable Lotteries Fund.

But it still didn't look good. The government parties, when in opposition, used to rail against Fianna Fail's so-called golden circles. Was this any different?

With reports emerging of Enda Kenny "seething" over the handling of the issue, Flannery – as shrewd a political operator as there is – wouldn't need to have been told what to do.

His resignations should take some of the heat out of the story for the Government, if not necessarily for Rehab. There may still be some kerfuffle over whether or not Flannery appears before the PAC. And this issue of his pension is a subject that is unlikely to go away, now that it has been raised in the first place.

There will be relief in Fine Gael (and probably in Labour) that Flannery has bowed out and hope that the shadow will be lifted from upcoming photo opportunities the Taoiseach will be enjoying in Washington and beyond.

But, even if that happens, this should be tempered by concern at how accident prone the Coalition, and Fine Gael in particular, has become.

There's an adage in politics – around even longer than Frank Flannery has been advising Fine Gael leaders – that 'when you're explaining you're losing'. Right now, Fine Gael is doing a hell of a lot of explaining.

Ever since the bailout exit, a series of controversies have ensured that the Government has lost control of the news agenda. It's constantly in reactive, rather than proactive, mode.

The Coalition actually has a decent message to sell in terms of growing employment and an improving economy.

But that message is no good if it can't get its foot out of its mouth long enough to get it across. With the local and European elections only 11 weeks away, that needs to change quickly.

SHANE COLEMAN IS THE PRESENTER OF THE SUNDAY SHOW ON NEWSTALK 106-108FM

Irish Independent

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