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Sunday 19 November 2017

Pat Rabbitte shafted by Enda Kenny on pylons

High tension over Irish Water, Shatter's law and Cabinet reshuffle

Pat Rabbitte
Pat Rabbitte

Fionnan Sheahan, Daniel McConnell and John Drennan

TAOISEACH Enda Kenny has shafted Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte by extending the pylons investigation in the latest escalation of tensions within the Coalition.

Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney also clashed with Mr Rabbitte at the cabinet meeting last week over the failure to include the North-South interconnector in the pylons review.

Exposing the lack of trust within the Coalition, Fine Gael felt the Labour Party minister was leaving their TDs in the north-east exposed with no "political cover" by the move to leave out the North-South line. Mr Rabbitte's failure to grasp the depth of anger around the pylons controversy is also being cited in government circles.

The kicking to touch last week of the decision on allowing super law firms – which would see solicitors, barristers and accountants working together – to be set up is also seen as a sign of worsening relations within the Coalition.

"That's the price of all the bad blood," a Fine Gael minister told the Sunday Independent.

Government figures say there is a change in atmosphere in the Coalition since the New Year, with a series of spats breaking out as both parties seek to carve out their own identities ahead of the local and European elections.

"This is only the start of it. Election fever has struck, you will not get a lick of sense out of anyone in this place until after May 25," a senior coalition source said.

Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore yesterday sought to deflect attention from the spate of divisions, insisting that the Coalition was solid.

"This Government is going to last until the very end of its mandate in 2016," he said.

But a series of mishaps resulted in Mr Rabbitte being "shafted" by Mr Kenny, coalition sources said.

Mr Rabbitte was given the go-ahead three weeks ago to look into setting up an independent inquiry into the underground options for the power lines.

But the Communications Minister set off alarm bells in Fine Gael with a cabinet memo late last Monday evening to set up a review of the Grid Link (Cork to Kildare via Wexford) and Grid West (Mayo to Roscommon) lines.

The red flags immediately went up in Fine Gael when it became apparent that the North-South project, running through Meath, Cavan and Monaghan, was not included in the remit of the independent expert panel.

Mr Kenny spoke with Mr Rabbitte before the cabinet meeting on Tuesday and agreed to look at trying to do something to allay concerns on the North-South line.

Mr Coveney is understood to have disagreed with Mr Rabbitte's plan and argued that there had to be "equality of treatment" between different parts of the country.

The Agriculture Minister is regarded as well informed on the issue after a decade as Fine Gael's communications spokesman in opposition, whereas Mr Rabbitte is seen as having a certain lack of enthusiasm on energy issues.

The Government signed off on the plan to formally set up the expert panel, headed up former Supreme Court Justice Catherine McGuinness, as it was too late to delay it.

The issue around the North-South line was to be dealt with over the course of the week.

Mr Kenny met with Fine Gael backbenchers from the north-east and reassured them that moves would be made to include the North-South line.

The plan was scuppered when Fine Gael backbencher Sean Conlon, from Cavan-Monaghan, broke the agreed confidentiality of the discussion and went public on the deal.

Mr Kenny rapidly forced the embarrassing U-turn on Mr Rabbitte, who had been adamant that the North-South line would not be included in his newly established review.

After the deal emerged, Mr Kenny contradicted Mr Rabbitte's stance and declared on Wednesday that he would like the commission to have its remit extended so the North-South project would be analysed in the same way as, "and on an equal footing with" the other areas of the country.

Fine Gael is more vulnerable in the north-east as it has seven TDs in the counties where the pylons are running.

"Rabbitte did not give any political cover to our TDs," a minister said.

"There is only one Labour TD affected a bit but there are a clatter of Fine Gael TDs," a source said.

Mr Kenny was "livid" and chastised Mr Conlon when he bumped into him outside the Fine Gael parliamentary party on Wednesday.

"He was after getting agreement with Rabbitte and had a fair idea it would be sorted out. Then Conlon blabbed.

"Rabbitte and the Taoiseach have a very good relationship so he's not happy about the situation," a Fine Gael source said.

Fine Gael and Labour Party figures do not believe Mr Rabbitte deliberately set out to damage coalition relations.

"It was just an oversight. Pat was of the view the purpose was to deal with Link and West. That created a difficulty. North-South wasn't on the memo because it was heading towards planning permission stage. It now looks as if he was pushed into it," a Fine Gael source said.

"Enda undermined Pat and did it personally. Pat went to Cabinet on the basis of an agreement and that was torn up by Enda," a senior Labour source said.

A number of FG sources blamed Mr Rabbitte's "deeply dismissive" attitude since the beginning of this pylons controversy last year for the U-turn. The Government is also sensitive to the demands from Northern Ireland that the interconnector project proceeds as planned.

Mr Rabbitte's move has not quelled the protests against the pylon projects. Within the anti-pylon and wind-farm movements, meetings are ongoing to select candidates for the local election.

A monster rally of the anti-wind-farm groups is scheduled to go ahead in early March in Dublin.

Sympathy for Mr Rabbitte was thin on the ground amongst certain elements of the Labour Party.

"Enda is becoming the new Bertie, poor old Pat has been rightly barbecued to save his blushes," one top-level Labour source said.

"His judgement has been consistently terrible on this, he doesn't listen," said another, adding: "Pat doesn't realise pylons and wind farms have nothing to do with logic."

Irish Independent

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