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Fiach Kelly: Reilly trusted with delivering a bit of good news for once

FOR the first time in a long time, Dr James Reilly can reflect this morning on scoring a rare political success. The announcement of the new national children's hospital was well handled, and the minister was allowed his moment in the sun as Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore left him to make the announcement himself.

After months of toil and bad press, perhaps they felt Dr Reilly should be the bearer of good news for once.

The hospital is the biggest infrastructural project this Government will undertake and it would be normal for the Taoiseach and Tanaiste to be associated with it.

Instead, the only other senior minister at the announcement was Children's Minister Frances Fitzgerald.

It is no coincidence that the children's hospital announcement came just days before polling in the Children's Referendum. The message? The Coalition cares about your kids, so trust them and vote Yes.

After taking centre stage, and clearly relishing it, Dr Reilly should savour his moment, because it is sure to be short-lived.

The Troika are still breathing down his neck over spending over-runs in his department and the Budget, when he will have to introduce more unpopular health cuts, is less than a month away. There are also issues surrounding his personal finances.

Dr Reilly could find himself left to his own devices again by Mr Kenny and Mr Gilmore, but for different reasons, and Labour backbenchers, senators and MEPs will soon rediscover their knack of rubbishing the good doctor in public.

Labour has made no secret of the fact it isn't happy with Dr Reilly's performance to date, but they would have to admit that a minister who seemed to attract calamity pulled off what could be the biggest decision of his tenure well, and ensured it was above parish pump politics.

There were no accusations yesterday that the minister had put political considerations ahead of the greater good, as there had been in the primary care centre controversy.

The local political benefit of the children's hospital going to St James's will go to only three Government backbenchers, and it will not be associated with ministerial favouritism like the Blanchardstown site, which had local TDs Joan Burton and Leo Varadkar as backers, or Belcamp, which Dr Reilly initially favoured.

By ditching the Mater site favoured by the previous Government and associated with Bertie Ahern but rejected by An Bord Pleanala, Dr Reilly has also given the Coalition an identifiable success and legacy.

It may be built on in future, if a medical quarter is developed in one of the capital's most deprived areas, as the minister hinted yesterday.

The Mater can perhaps consider itself hard done by, since Dr Reilly said it was overlooked because of planning concerns, before then admitting the planning risk to the St James's proposal is "moderate".

What "moderate" means is anyone's guess, but both city centre locations present some planning risks, and it is understood some in Cabinet would have preferred a greenfield site.

But the Mater was associated with Bertie and Fianna Fail, and St James's will belong to Fine Gael, Labour and Dr Reilly.

The opposition was largely neutered yesterday. Billy Kelleher, Fianna Fail's health spokesman and Dr Reilly's tormentor-in-chief recently, welcomed the announcement, as did Sinn Fein's Caoimhghin O Caolain.

One of the few dissenting voices was Independent TD Finian McGrath, who objected to the ?26m spent on the Mater proposal that will now never be returned to the taxpayer. Dr Reilly, under fire for so long and identified with Phil Hogan as one of the main magnets for controversy in Cabinet, has a notable success under his arm.

It by no means makes him bulletproof, but it gives him political breathing space after a time when it seemed not a matter of if, but when, he would leave the Cabinet.

Irish Independent