Friday 19 January 2018

Enda woes: Leo gets tough, women at war

Fine Gael female TDs claim Taoiseach 'does not get women politically'

Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Photo: Mark Condren

Health Minister Leo Varadkar is heading for a Budget showdown with 
Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin, the Sunday 
Independent can reveal.

Sources close to the new Health Minister warned this weekend that Mr Varadkar "will not be shafted" by Mr Howlin in the manner Fine Gael feels the former health minister James Reilly was.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny's increasingly shaky Coalition is facing a summer of discontent with senior ministers already digging in ahead of the Budget in October.

Sources close to Mr Varadkar have revealed that he is prepared for a lengthy battle with Mr Howlin and public expenditure officials to ensure the Department of Health is not unfairly targeted for cuts.

"The figures were clearly unrealistic last Budget day and they have been proven to be just that. But Leo is clear - he will not be shafted like James was," said a source close to Mr Varadkar.

Speaking to the Sunday Independent, Mr Varadkar himself has made clear he will not tolerate being handed unrealistic targets by Mr Howlin for the HSE.

''I am going to use this summer to prepare my plans and focus on putting a realistic budget in place for next year, which we can stick to,'' he said.

The Health Minister received the latest grim figures last week which show the HSE is now €163m over budget, up from €107.5m in April.

The numbers waiting to see a specialist for more than a year have also risen from 22,746 to 28,185.

Mr Varadkar is also facing additional budget pressures following the Government's U-turn on the medical card review as well as lower-than- expected Haddington Road Agreement savings.

The imminent clash between Mr Varadkar and Mr Howlin is indicative of the worsening relations between the two Coalition parties.

Fine Gael has voiced criticisms over the way the Labour leader and Social Protection Minister Joan Burton "ran rings around poor James Reilly".

For her part, Ms Burton has also been openly resentful of the use of savings delivered by her department to fill a 'black hole' in Health.

Mr Varadkar's comments will be seen as significant given he is regarded as a Fine Gael leader in waiting. Mr Kenny, in contrast, has been severely weakened by his perceived mishandling of the reshuffle.

The Taoiseach has become isolated from his own party members, who are aggrieved that he failed to promote a woman to the junior ministries in spite of having promoted Heather Humphreys to Cabinet.

At a meeting of the parliamentary party last week, in an indication of his weakened authority, Mr Kenny was accused of talking ''gobbledegook'' over controversial disability cuts of €1.2m.

Senator Michael D'Arcy said that if ministers were not prepared to listen to TDs then Dail motions would be tabled to reverse Government decisions "which are plain stupid''.

A number of TDs normally loyal, such as Derek Keating and Jerry Buttimer, were also scathing about the reshuffle.

A number of female Fine Gael TDs have said they believe the Taoiseach is uncomfortable, politically, dealing with women.

"Enda does not naturally get on well with women politically. Socially he can, but when it comes to political conversations - no," one senior FG TD said.

Cork North West TD Aine Collins was said to be "devastated" to have been overlooked, not just for a junior ministry but also for 
the chairmanship of the 
Jobs Committee, which was given to Marcella Corcoran Kennedy.

"Aine was in a bad way. She has thrived on that committee and was a natural choice to become chair. Marcella came out of the blue given she doesn't even sit on it," a source close to Ms Collins said.

Meath East TD Regina Doherty said the lack of women in the junior ministers was a "missed opportunity" which drew unwanted negative publicity upon Fine Gael. "It sends out the wrong message. It is a missed opportunity," she told the Sunday Independent.

She denied suggestions that she remonstrated with the Taoiseach after not being promoted. "That is not my style. If I was upset I would go home, make a cup of tea and cry on my husband's shoulder," she said.

Mr Kenny's former close adviser Frank Flannery also said Mr Kenny's reshuffle had "caused a great deal of unease".

Speaking to the Sunday Independent yesterday, he said: ''Fine Gael has a lot of extremely bright female TDs and I was very happily involved in helping a lot of them into power.

"But I think it is a very genuine point that the female side of the party should have been paid particular attention to."

Mr Kenny's ability to work with women may also have implications for the longevity of the Coalition. "I think he will have profound difficulties with Joan Burton. Enda would slap Eamon on the back, pat him on the head and send him off. Joan won't be as easy to deal with," said one source.

Concerns are also high that Fine Gael is again becoming a 'family at war'. One minister said: "We are 'bursted' up into factions at the moment."

"Some within Fine Gael have said that the instability caused by the reshuffle and worsening relations with Labour means the chances of a general election before Easter next year have increased.

A senior FG figure said: "Pat Rabbitte and Phil Hogan were the glue. In 12 months time we will be like the car going down the hill with no petrol."

Another senior backbencher suggested that such was the anger at Mr Kenny, he could face a heave within the 12 months. "He has pissed off so many of us that his position as leader is now open to question. I see a heave within a year," said one FG deputy.


Daniel McConnell and John Drennan

Sunday Independent

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