Chief whip Doherty in shock offer to Sinn Fein
Doherty's future coalition overture
FG TDs 'incensed' at latest gaffe
Government Chief Whip Regina Doherty is at the centre of another political storm this weekend after she broke ranks with the Fine Gael leadership to become the first-ever elected party member to publicly state she is open to forming a coalition with Sinn Fein.
Ms Doherty's intervention is set to cause a major headache for Taoiseach Enda Kenny and incense party colleagues who are vehemently opposed to governing with Sinn Fein - an enduring legacy of the party's links to Provisional IRA terrorist atrocities.
Former Fine Gael director of elections Frank Flannery was the last senior Fine Gael party figure to say he was open to forming a coalition with Sinn Fein and he was immediately demoted by Mr Kenny for his comments.
However, in a wide-ranging interview with the Sunday Independent, Ms Doherty said there were "fabulous" people in Sinn Fein and insisted she would "of course" serve in government with the party.
"There are some incredible people in Sinn Fein; incredibly smart, articulate, thoughtful and could I work with them? Of course I could, yeah," Ms Doherty said.
The Meath East TD's proposal will surprise party colleagues as she has been a vocal critic of Gerry Adams and his party over their handling of Mairia Cahill's sexual abuse case scandal and the murder of prison guard Brian Stack by Provisional IRA terrorists.
However, the controversial intervention is one of a series of embarrassing gaffes by the Fine Gael TD since she took office. Two months after being appointed by the Taoiseach, she called on Mr Kenny to set out a timeline for his departure as Fine Gael leader and was later forced to apologise for the comment.
In the week before Christmas, she shocked Cabinet colleagues by saying she would support anti-pylon campaigners in her constituency who engaged in acts of civil disobedience.
And last week, she publicly criticised her constituency colleague and Minister of State for Mental Health and Older People Helen McEntee for not saying hello to her in Leinster House.
The Sunday Independent can reveal Ms Doherty was reprimanded for her thinly veiled attack on Ms McEntee.
"Regina speaks her mind and has always done that and will probably continue to do that; however, discretion is the better part of valour and that has been communicated to her," a senior source in the Taoiseach's office said.
A senior Fine Gael Cabinet minister described the Chief Whip's comment as an "unprovoked attack" on another minister who is "very well liked and regarded" by party members.
"How many of these ridiculous things is she planning to say," the minister added.
Ms Doherty's comments on Sinn Fein were made during an interview conducted before she sparked a row with Ms McEntee by claiming the Junior Minister "would not blink her eyes" at her when they passed each other in Leinster House.
The Chief Whip's spokeswoman said Ms Doherty had no further comments to make on her relationship with her constituency colleague.
In the interview with the Sunday Independent, the Fine Gael Cabinet member said she could "work with anybody" if she could "find similar ground to work on a particular policy issue".
Asked specifically if she would be open to entering into coalition with Sinn Fein, Ms Doherty said she couldn't speak for Fine Gael, but added: "Could I work with them? Of course I could, yeah."
Put to her that she wasn't ruling it out, Ms Doherty said: "I don't know... I can't answer that question because I don't make those decisions."
She conceded there were Fine Gael members with "far more fundamental views" than she held who would be opposed to such a coalition.
In 2009, Mr Kenny demoted his chief election strategist, Frank Flannery, after he said the party would be open to working with Sinn Fein in the weeks leading up the local elections.
Mr Flannery was asked to apologise to the parliamentary party for his comments and moved aside over fears his views would impact on Fine Gael's success in the general election two years later.
In 2009, former Green Party leader Trevor Sargent claimed he was asked by the current EU Commissioner and senior Fine Gael politician Phil Hogan to approach Sinn Fein about entering into government to stop Fianna Fail winning a third term in office.
Mr Hogan denied he asked Mr Sargent to make this approach.
Ms Doherty said she believes Sinn Fein's growth is being hampered because Gerry Adams remains the party's leader. "It's not my place to tell them at all but if you had a different leader I could see far more centre-Ireland moving towards some of their policies," she said.
Ms Doherty questioned if such voters would stay with the party if they later came to view Sinn Fein's policies as "populist".
She added: "I think that if there was a younger, far less maybe inhibited leader that they would increase in power.
"But again that's their baby. No more than it's up to them to tell me who to have as my leader."