Wednesday 17 January 2018

North Korean caper shows fragility of Leo's position

A mix of indulgence and averting of the eyes kept Government on track, writes John Downing

Independent Alliance Minister John Halligan has a proven ability to attract political calamity
Independent Alliance Minister John Halligan has a proven ability to attract political calamity
John Downing

John Downing

Kim Jong-un and his Pyongyang pals can put away the good china for now as Ireland's peace crusaders have cancelled their world-saving plans to come calling.

Politicians at Leinster House can leave their election posters in storage. Another crisis has been stood down - for now. The "peace trio" have definitively, and apparently voluntarily, decided to return the turtle doves to their loft.

The resolution came from a peculiar mix of parental indulgence and a liberal helping of that old "Kerry formula".

Both devices were deployed to avert a huge rift between Fine Gael and its Independent Alliance partners in Coalition.

The parental indulgence part left the Taoiseach publicly saying that the Independent Alliance trio - Shane Ross, Finian McGrath and John Halligan - could potentially fly to North Korea in their quixotic efforts to avert nuclear armageddon. Stretching credibility beyond its limits, Leo Varadkar effectively said three members of his ministerial team could sue for world peace, but in some kind of personal capacity.

What utter nonsense. This rather incredible stance was augmented by that renowned "Kerry formula" - better known as "plenty of no-notice".

It has been a calamitous seven days for Mr Halligan, Independent Alliance TD for Waterford and Junior Minister for training and skills. You could argue that misfortune, in the shape of an error at a job interview 18 months ago, coincided with the self-inflicted woe from the "peace trio's" North Korea mission announcement a week ago.

Older male politicians at Leinster House in all parties quietly conceded some understanding for Mr Halligan's breach of equality law, in asking a woman civil servant at a job interview about her marriage and children. If nothing else, that incident has served as a wake-up call to all males who are called upon to serve on interview boards.

Read More: Halligan keeps the door open for peace mission to Pyongyang

Still, no matter how you look at this one, Mr Halligan, the minister responsible for equality policy, broke equality law. And the man has a proven singular ability to attract political calamity.

By now that interview gaffe looks set to be sorted via him digging deep to pay the resultant €7,500 fine and costs. And from it all, Coalition peace emerged with the cancellation of the Pyongyang peace plan.

Mr Halligan is joined in the political losers' corner by Mr Ross and Mr McGrath. All three have shown very poor political judgment over the past week. The other pair in the Independent Alliance, Seán Canney and Kevin 'Boxer' Moran, have worked hard, and with some success, to keep their distance from this farrago.

On the other side one could argue that Mr Varadkar is entitled to kudos for deft use of the "Kerry formula" and not stoking a potential open conflict. One could further argue that he has made Fine Gael look good by being the "ah-sure-God-love them" grown-ups, keeping distant surveillance on the Independent Alliance and quietly ensuring it came to no harm.

But it came at too high a price as the Taoiseach conceded a principle of democratic government which bars ministers from freelance foreign initiatives that conflict with government policy. Just look across the water to London, and the forced resignation of UK international development secretary Priti Patel, who did some personal and unauthorised diplomacy in Israel.

The Independent Alliance trio's antics have impaired the sense of Government's stability, which was augmented after the Dáil passed of the Budget on October 10. The Government's overall credibility is diminished and the week's events remind us just how fragile Mr Varadkar's position really is.

If he had the Dáil numbers the kibosh would have been put on that North Korea caper. And Mr Halligan would be on the backbenches.

Irish Independent

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