Saturday 24 March 2018

Labour left shaken after Penrose resignation

Brian Hutton and Lyndsey Telford

COALITION partner Labour was tonight left shaken by the high-profile resignation of Cabinet minister Willie Penrose over austerity measures.

Allegations that party MEP Nessa Childers has been threatened with expulsion for refusing to toe the leadership line on a controversial civil servant appointment has also sparked tensions within its ranks.

Mr Penrose stood down as housing minister and resigned from the Labour parliamentary party after Cabinet colleagues rubber-stamped the closure of an Army base in his constituency.

Columb Barracks in Mullingar, Co Westmeath, along with barracks at Clonmel, Castlebar and Cavan, will shut as part of an overhaul of Defence Forces operations which Taoiseach Enda Kenny said will save the taxpayer €5m.

Some 515 military personnel and 25 civilian workers will be transferred to other existing barracks.

Rejecting claims it would have the same impact as a small factory closing down in the towns, Mr Kenny said no jobs would be lost while proceeds from the sale of the barracks will be used to upgrade Defence Forces equipment.

However, Mr Penrose and Opposition politicians say the closures make no financial sense and will only hurt the towns involved as well as the soldiers stationed there and their families.

His resignation is the first senior defection to strike the nine-month-old Fine Gael/Labour coalition.

"While I will no longer hold the Labour whip, I will continue to serve the people of Longford Westmeath as an active and vocal public representative," he said.

The barracks closure has also led to grassroots rebellion among Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore's rank and file.

Michael Dollard, Labour leader on Westmeath County Council, said he would resign from the party if the Government ignored the views of Mr Penrose.

Separately, MEP Ms Childers said she has been threatened with being kicked out of the party if she continues to oppose the nomination of Department of Finance secretary general Kevin Cardiff to the European Court of Auditors.

She claimed that during a phone call from a senior politician, she was also warned that she could end up in court if she did not drop her objections.

"I received a phone call, or made a phone call and I was told that first of all, did I realise that I could end up in court because I could be sued for Mr Cardiff's loss of income," she said.

"Earlier in the day, the press officer told me I wasn't allowed to talk about it any longer.

"A second phone call happened which I didn't take but it was on my voicemail saying that if I proceeded, a recommendation for my expulsion from my party would take place."

Mr Cardiff played a major role in the EU/IMF bailout negotiations in the aftermath of the collapse of Ireland's economy.

The top civil servant was recently quizzed over his department's double counting blunder which left the national accounts out 3.6 billion euro.

Ms Childers, MEP for Ireland East, said the error, combined with Mr Cardiff's economic background, led her to believe he would be unfit to take up the 180,000 euro European job.

Despite the upheaval, Mr Penrose insisted Labour members were not being prevented from speaking their minds.

"We're not clones, we have articulate, different views in the context of the issues that arise and that's the very essence of a good vibrant party," he said, after announcing his resignation.

Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore said he fully understood why Mr Penrose quit.

"He's a very good colleague, somebody who has worked hard for the Labour Party both nationally and in his constituency," he said.

"I understand his decision... but the Government has to make decisions which are in the best interests of the country."

Mr Gilmore also denied Ms Childers was being silenced and said he respected the right of MEPs to have their own point of view.

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