Thursday 14 November 2019

Fionnan Sheahan: Gilmore's patience with Shortall's hissy fits is wearing thin

Health Minister Dr James Reilly and Roisin Shortall TD
Health Minister Dr James Reilly and Roisin Shortall TD
Fionnan Sheahan

Fionnan Sheahan

THE interaction between a cabinet minister and a minister of state is tricky. It's not a relationship of equals.

The senior minister will always keep control of anything important in their department and leave the less vital matters to their junior minister.

In the event that there is any major announcement to be made in this area, the senior minister will usually step in to take the credit.

The junior minister's role is essentially to live off crumbs and praise the senior minister: to be seen and not heard.

Most junior ministers accept their lot in life and attempt to show a little bit of activity on their part. Some are just happy to be there.

Traditionally, a junior ministry is referred to as a 'half-car' because while cabinet ministers got a state car and garda driver, junior ministers got the money to hire a driver for their own car.

The rapport is not always harmonious, but the balance is not fair as the cabinet minister holds all the cards.

Roisin Shortall wants her specific responsibilities recognised and to have the ability to follow through on policies.

After more than 18 months as a junior minister, she seems to have precious little to show for her efforts.

Her quest for independence, though, naively ignores the reality that the senior minister controls the purse strings and has the power to make actual decisions.

The inability to bring colleagues with her threatens to derail any chance of her getting her big-ticket agenda items -- such as a curb on alcohol sponsorship of sports events -- through in any form.

The deterioration of the relationship between Ms Shortall and Dr James Reilly is so bad that the pair are now openly squabbling without batting an eyelid. Ms Shortall is almost going out of her way to show the lack of rapport.

She failed to directly express confidence in Dr Reilly during four-minute speech on a motion of no confidence in him. Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore did not look impressed.

After Wednesday night's vote, Mr Gilmore was spotted bolting out of the Dail chamber on the trail of his junior minister.

Rather than turning right to head back to her office, Ms Shortall went down the stairs. Mr Gilmore didn't follow, so there was no public scene.

MS Shortall's behaviour seemed ill-advised as the cabinet heavy-hitters were rolled out to defend Dr Reilly, including the Taoiseach, the Tanaiste and Finance Minister Michael Noonan.

Her contribution sparked annoyance within the Coalition as it gave Fianna Fail an opportunity to keep poking at the festering sore after their motion of no confidence had passed by so innocuously.

Ms Shortall's disappointment at not being appointed to the Cabinet last year was evident.

Mr Gilmore opted instead for the experienced heads in the party, like Ruairi Quinn, Pat Rabbitte and Brendan Howlin.

Rather than proving Mr Gilmore wrong, she is merely justifying the Tanaiste's decision by showing an inability to get on with the job.

Ms Shortall added fuel to the fire with her response to the curious revelation that two towns in Dr Reilly's constituency managed to end up on the list of locations for health centres -- after the final list had been drawn up.

Not only did she not stand by the decision, she openly questioned it -- and pointed the finger firmly at Dr Reilly.

She also said that he made the final decisions as "the senior minister always has the final call in relation to any decisions".

Ms Shortall also refused on three occasions to express confidence in Dr Reilly, saying only that the Government and ministers needed to "recommit" to the Programme for Government. She added: "Minister Reilly and I need to work closely together."

Her latest strop didn't elicit much sympathy from senior colleagues who are tired of her squabbling with Dr Reilly.

In comments regarded as a dig at Ms Shortall, Mr Quinn went as far as possible to staunchly back Dr Reilly.

"James Reilly has both my confidence and my sympathy because he's inheriting an incredible mess -- he's a medical doctor in his own right," he said.

"He has a very difficult task and he needs the support of all his colleagues in Government. He certainly has mine."

Mr Quinn echoed Mr Gilmore, who has spoken in recent days about a strong "team" in the department implementing reform -- with the emphasis on the word "team".

Fine Gael is always going to back its man in a clash with a coalition colleague.

But the mood music coming from the Labour leadership has changed, with no patience left in the tank.

Nonetheless, the drip-drip effect on Dr Reilly continues unabated, with yet another batch of controversies surrounding the beleaguered Health Minister.

After emerging generally unscathed from the motion of no confidence in the Dail, Dr Reilly is having to explain the waiting lists of 340,000 patients seeking treatment.

The controversy over the health centres adds to his woes and places him in an appar-ently perpetual state of crisis.

His authority is being gradually eroded and the constant stream of controversies not only weakens his position but is also hampering the progress of reform in his own department.

When his own junior minister won't express confidence in him, he can't expect the wider public to have much faith.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss