Wednesday 26 November 2014

Reilly might be a dead man walking but don't be surprised if Kenny still backs him

Published 18/06/2014 | 02:30

Sometimes in politics, sorry is the easiest word. James Reilly and the Coalition finally bowed to the inevitable yesterday with a spectacular U-turn, reinstating withdrawn discretionary medical cards and apologising profusely for the distress caused.

It took them long enough. Too long, most people would say. The dozens of Fine Gael and Labour councillors who lost their seats in the local elections, at least partly as a result of the furore, would certainly concur.

Neither they, nor more importantly those who lost medical cards in the review, will be consoled by the knowledge that they were the victims of "unintended consequences" – the euphemism Reilly kept repeating to describe the catastrophic mess caused by the medical card review.

It was like something the US military would have come up with during Vietnam. But in using that term Reilly, for all the criticism he gets privately (and publicly) from his cabinet colleagues, was taking one for the team.

The reality is that there was nothing unintended or unexpected about the consequences of the Government's attempt to bring "efficiency" to the medical card system.

And for that, the entire Cabinet – and not just the convenient patsy in the shape of the Health Minister – should take political responsibility.

In the past two Budgets, Health has lost out big time to Social Welfare in the battle for diminishing funding. Why? Largely to keep Joan Burton mollified. In turn, that kept Eamon Gilmore happy. The 'unintended consequences', to borrow the phrase du jour, of those decisions are now apparent.

Reilly himself had warned of these very consequences – and was derided for doing so – last October when the huge cutbacks required in Health were unveiled. But, other than acknowledging that "people were well aware of my concerns", he resisted the temptation yesterday to say 'I told you so'.

He would have been well within his rights to do so. For all the 'Calamity James'-style stick he has shipped, there's little doubt Reilly has been shabbily treated and given the political equivalent of mission impossible – maintaining services and radically reforming the system with a rapidly reduced budget.

Not that the Health Minister is blameless for the situation he finds himself in – far from it.

When you talk to James Reilly, it's hard not to be impressed by the passion he has for the job. He has a real vision of where he wants to bring the health service. But the problem is he has been far from convincing on how he's going to get it to that point.

The word is that he can rub people, including colleagues, up the wrong way. That's not necessarily fatal in a minister but it does seem that Reilly – a relative Leinster House novice – lacks the political nous to achieve his goals. He's certainly been outmanoeuvred by the wily (and demanding) Burton around the Cabinet table.

Then again, Mary Harney had bags of political nous – not to mention huge public popularity and money to spend – when she went into Health and look how the department ground her down.

Reilly, for all his problems, has been in remarkably chipper form over the past couple of weeks.

He looks, from the outside, as if he's resigned to his fate or at least accepting of the fact that it's outside his control.

The political wisdom in Leinster House is that he is, ministerially speaking, a dead man walking. A momentum has built up behind his dismissal. Fianna Fail TDs are reporting back that Labour deputies are openly saying they'd vote against Reilly if the Opposition put down a confidence motion in him.

Politics being politics, a head is probably required in the wake of the local elections catastrophe. And, given the central role of the medical cards fiasco, Reilly's looks the most likely. Fair or not, the Taoiseach will find that hard to resist. He will also be conscious that if he doesn't move Reilly, it will overshadow what's likely to be a pretty serious overhaul of the Cabinet.

For those reasons, it's probably still likely that Reilly will be moved. But it mightn't be as certain as everyone thinks it is. Kenny apparently feels that his deputy leader has been harshly treated and unfairly scapegoated. Taoisigh throughout the years have a tendency to dig in when that happens to one of their ministers. It's still possible that Kenny's sense of 'fair play' will over-ride the quick political fix of sacking Reilly from Health.

At yesterday's press conference, the head of the HSE used the Latin phrase 'ad misericordiam', when talking about those not currently eligible for a discretionary medical card. Ironically, the term, which means an appeal for pity or mercy, could equally be used to describe Reilly's strongest card with the Taoiseach. Don't be completely surprised if it trumps all others.

Shane Coleman is the presenter of the 'Sunday Show 'on Newstalk 106-108FM

Irish Independent

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