Monday 22 January 2018

Coalition shaken by ministers' turf wars

Row escalates between Joan Burton and James Reilly over who takes cuts

Row escalates between Joan Burton and James Reilly over who takes cuts


THE cohesion of the Government is being undermined by repeated clashes involving the deputy leaders of Fine Gael and Labour, James Reilly and Joan Burton, the Sunday Independent can reveal.

Health Minister Dr Reilly and Social Protection Minister Ms Burton also control the two highest-spending departments at a time when the Government is on a relentless austerity drive.

Relations between the pair -- and by extension the Coalition partners -- are expected to worsen in the new year as the effects of austerity measures become apparent and further cuts and taxes are imposed this year and every year until the next election.

In the Sunday Independent today, Transport and Tourism Minister Leo Varadkar writes: "As a nation, we need to face up to the fact that more austerity will be required."

Last week Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney admitted for the first time all was not well in Government: "There has been friction. There are some very strong personalities in both parties," he said.

Mr Varadkar writes today: "When disagreements do occur, as they always will in single-party or coalition governments, it's usually down to communications issues or a personality clash, rather than a policy difference."

Relations between Fine Gael and Labour deteriorated in the weeks in advance of the Budget in December. Mr Coveney last week pointed to the spate of leaks in the run up to the Budget, which he described as "regrettable".

Finance Minister Michael Noonan, and Public Expenditure and Reform Minister Brendan Howlin, subsequently moved to ease the tensions which had arisen.

But last week it became apparent that a high level of friction still exists. A series of emailed letters have been leaked to reveal the relationship between Dr Reilly and the Labour Minister of State in his department, Roisin Shortall, is seriously strained.

In the correspondence, Ms Shortall, a close friend of Ms Burton, expressed her "entire dissatisfaction" at the manner in which Dr Reilly was handling the issue of setting fees for GPs involved in the winter flu vaccination campaign. She complained that she had requested to speak with Dr Reilly on four occasions and felt it "unacceptable" that she was being cut out of the process.

Dr Reilly put his failure to meet with Ms Shortall down to a "misunderstanding".

In the Budget, the Department of Health took the biggest cut (¿543m) -- followed by the Department of Social Protection (¿475m) -- some ¿190m less than projected in the National Development Plan.

Before the Budget, both Dr Reilly and Ms Burton's departments engaged in a series of leaks designed to whip up public opposition to certain proposed cuts.

The Budget outcome, therefore, reflected a victory of sorts for Ms Burton, whose department had been initially expected to produce cuts of ¿750m.

However, the leaks had the effect of causing distress, particularly among the elderly and vulnerable, and left the Government open to the accusation of ruling through fear.

Dr Reilly is understood to remain unhappy at the manner in which the issue was handled.

Almost 70 per cent of his department's spend goes towards financing pay and pensions of health staff.

Several Fine Gael TDs are now talking openly about the need to revisit the Croke Park Agreement, which protects public sector pay and pensions until 2014.

In the Sunday Independent today, Mr Varadkar says that three-quarters of the money the country owes was borrowed by successive governments to pay for public service pay, pensions, services, infrastructure and welfare.

"And it is this public debt that we are adding to fastest. You cannot get out of a debt spiral until you stop borrowing. As a nation, we need to face up to the fact that more austerity will be required to balance the nation's books no matter what happens to the bank debt, bondholders, the euro or anything else," he said.

However, Mr Varadkar himself had added to the stresses within Government when he recently laid the blame for social welfare cuts entirely at the door of Labour.

He said: "No proposal for social welfare cuts came from any Fine Gael minister. The proposals were put forward by Social Protection and Public Expenditure. They either came from the Public Expenditure Minister, Brendan Howlin, who's Labour, or the Social Welfare Minister, Joan Burton, who's Labour."

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