Fine Gael branded unpatriotic over cancelled US trip
Fine Gael was branded unpatriotic today after Tanaiste Mary Coughlan was forced to cancel a state visit to the US in order to take questions in the Dail.
The Opposition party heaped further pressure on the Government by withdrawing the paired votes system and blocking the Tanaiste's jobs and education mission.
Mrs Coughlan said Fine Gael was embarrassing the country with a tactic sure to strain the already slim coalition majority when the party pushes for three outstanding by-elections to be held.
Under the pairing regime, a TD from one party agrees with his or her opposite number not to vote on a subject. Arrangements are often made to facilitate travel and other ministerial duties.
The Tanaiste was forced to cancel her trip with Enterprise Ireland to St Louis after eight months of planning.
"It's a missed opportunity," Mrs Coughlan said.
The Department of Education secretary general will attend instead of the minister as officials strive to promote Ireland as a place for international students and attempt to tie up new contracts for colleges and language schools.
"There's a little bit of antics going on here. There's a missed opportunity which is desperately unfortunate," the Tanaiste said.
"This is slightly embarrassing for the country."
She added: "If that's the way they (Fine Gael) want to do it well then it shows you that their focus is on being disruptive and not having the better interests of this state, regardless of the Government, to the forefront of their minds.
"People will see it as it is."
Batt O'Keeffe, Enterprise Minister, said Fine Gael's refusal to co-operate on Dail votes would cost jobs and investments.
"Fine Gael has embarrassed the country and it is very disappointing that the main Opposition party would place political self-interest above the national interest," Mr O'Keeffe said.
Mr O'Keeffe said one in five international students came from the US and about 70pc of all foreign direct investment into Ireland originated in North America.
"By failing to recognise these important economic indicators, Fine Gael has demonstrated a form of political pettiness and misjudgment that destroys the party's credibility to lead an alternative government," the minister said.
He added: "It is, quite simply, unpatriotic."
Meanwhile, Fine Gael environment spokesman Phil Hogan yesterday confirmed his party would move the writs for the three outstanding by-elections on Wednesday.
"It is clear that the Government is unravelling. We need an immediate general election ... we need to get our country working again," he said.
By-elections in Dublin South, Donegal South West and Waterford are widely expected to be held in the spring.
Taoiseach Brian Cowen will face intense pressure in the three votes with the Government majority already down to two Dail seats.
Further pressure is expected from the backbenchers, including two who have threatened to vote against the Government, over local health issues. Chief Whip John Curran yesterday warned there was no pot of gold to ease the crisis in individual constituencies.
Later, the Labour Party called for the Tanaiste to meet Opposition spokesmen to thrash out a solution to the row.
"There is a danger that this controversy will be seen as political in-fighting by political parties in the Dail when the absolute priority should be to focus on job creation," Mr Quinn said.
The former minister accused the Tanaiste of being discourteous to TDs by not informing them in advance of the US trip.
But Mr Quinn said the minister should have the chance to set out how important the mission is.
"In these circumstances, I believe that the national interest, and particularly the interests of the unemployed, would best be served by the Tanaiste meeting with the opposition spokespersons, setting out details of the planned mission, explaining the importance she attaches to it and considering ways in which the current controversy could be resolved," he said.