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Saturday 16 February 2019

Abyss opens for Cowen as FF TDs revolt

Taoiseach tries to hold the line while nervous deputies bombarded by calls from angry voters

DANIEL McCONNELL, JEROME REILLY and  RONALD QUINLAN

The authority of Brian Cowen as Taoiseach and leader of Fianna Fail has been seriously damaged by the medical card debacle that followed last Tuesday's Budget, with the Government at risk after only five months if its backbenchers refuse to support the measure in a crucial Dail vote later in the week.

Despite high-profile public appearances yesterday by Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan and Minister for Health Mary Harney, the Government was still in crisis as a number of junior ministers urged the Taoiseach to remain in Ireland and send Tanaiste Mary Coughlan on a trade mission to China today in his place.

However, speaking to the Sunday Independent last night, Mr Cowen confirmed his travel plans. "We'll be trying to develop a process on the medical cards, which I want to set in train before leaving."

Some observers believe that Mr Cowen's appearance on RTE News on Friday night may have steadied the nerves of beleaguered TDs, but did little to assuage public anger.

According to the latest Sunday Independent/Quantum Research nationwide poll on Friday night, 88 per cent want the Budget measure scrapped, while two thirds want Ms Harney to stand down from her position. A massive 96 per cent said they want the Government to scrap the contract with doctors that allows them to claim four times the normal fee for those over 70 on a medical card.

One source said yesterday: "If the Government gives in on this one, it will only be storing up more trouble for the future. Teachers' unions will stir things up on the issue of class sizes. TDs are already suffering a similar level of criticism on this issue as they are on the medical cards."

The abyss that opened up in front of the Government in the 24 hours after the decision to abolish universal medical cards for the over-70s shocked senior members of the Cabinet and led to a crisis meeting between the Taoiseach and the minister for finance on Friday night.

It is believed Mr Lenihan said he would be unhappy about any moves to roll back the Budget, but agreed to Mr Cowen's announcement that discussions would be opened with the Irish Medical Organisation about re-negotiating the scheme so that the cut-back could be softened.

Yesterday, a Government spokesman described as "nonsense" a rumour that Mr Lenihan had told the Taoiseach he would resign if his Budget was watered down. "The Government is hanging tough on the core issue of means testing. If it gives in on this, more things -- like class sizes -- will come into it and we'll have to dismantle the whole Budget," said the source yesterday.

Backbench Fianna Fail TDs have been bombarded over the past 36 hours with emails and phone calls from people protesting about the medical card changes, with over 50 people demonstrating outside the Limerick office of the Minister for Defence Mr O'Dea.

"A few weeks ago we saw a stock market meltdown -- this weekend we almost saw a Government meltdown, but we now expect that will happen sooner rather than later," said one Fine Gael TD.

A Fianna Fail TD said that the Government have gone from "hero to zero" in a week, referring to the bank bailout and the Budget debacle.

The public revolt led by TD Joe Behan, who resigned from Fianna Fail, and other senior figures like Tom Kitt and Jim McDaid has also signalled clearly to the Cabinet that there could be opposition to other Budget cutbacks which will begin to take effect in the coming months.

Coming after the defeat of the Lisbon Treaty and the economic collapse, the medical card crisis has clearly left the Government floundering.

Many Government backbench TDs admitted they were "being hammered" by constituents at their local clinics over the issue. The Minister for Defence saw his office picketed by people protesting against the move. "I understand their feelings and need to protest, they are entitled to do that," said Mr O'Dea.

One observer remarked: "The Government has gone from boom to bust in a very short time and there is a whole new generation of backbench TDs who have never known bad times and who are unnerved by the irate reaction of their constituents. They are in a very shaky mood."

Darragh O'Brien, Fianna Fail deputy for Dublin North, said he won't be supporting any amendments to the medical card concession to the over 70s, but that he welcomes the move to engage with the nation's doctors.

"This hit the backbenchers like a bolt out of the blue, and has led to deep fear among people all over the country. Once you give people an entitlement, you can't take it away from them. I won't support any change to the medical card, there has to be somewhere else to find the €100m in savings. The Taoiseach's comments, however, are a step in the right direction."

In light of the backlash against the Government, Mr Lenihan said on radio that he "very much regretted" any worry caused to members of the public and reiterated that the Government is working on a solution which would be in place by January 1.

Noel O'Flynn, a TD from Cork North Central, said yesterday: "I think Taoiseach Cowen has made a very important first step -- but what should happen is that the whole issue should be parked."

Roscommon Leitrim TD Michael Finneran said that even with the Taoiseach's comments on Friday night, the issue remains "clear as mud."

A spokesman for Green Party leader John Gormley said the medical card scheme was not an issue on which the party would quit. "The Green Party are very pleased with what the Taoiseach had to say in his interview on RTE. The review is exactly what we had asked for through the Green Party's deputy leader Mary White. The Green Party made it clear that it does not see this an issue on which it will be pulling out of Government."

Health Minister Mary Harney defied backbench unrest yesterday by saying that even if GPs agree to cut their €640 annual fee for over 70s on a medical card, the Government will still end the automatic entitlement.

Independent TD Finian McGrath has also said he will withdraw his support for Government unless the plan to remove the automatic right to a medical card for over 70s is withdrawn completely.

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