Tuesday 23 July 2019

How Fine Gael's central asset became a liability

Enda's disloyalty to Flannery represents a more general shirking of responsibility.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny with former Fine Gael strategist Frank Flannery
Taoiseach Enda Kenny with former Fine Gael strategist Frank Flannery

Eilis O'Hanlon

The Taoiseach seemed to be channeling the spirit of President Bill Clinton in the Dail last week when, in response to questions about a former CEO of troubled charity Rehab, he only just stopped short of saying: "I did not have personal relations with that man."

"That man" isn't just any man. He's Frank Flannery, who we now know received, either in his own name or through his firm Laragh Consultancy, a total of over €409,000 between 2007 and 2013 for consultancy work undertaken on behalf of Rehab, the organisation of which he was once director.

The Taoiseach made it clear that he did not approve of charities and other organisations in receipt of public money paying professional consultants to lobby politicians. What he was less forthcoming about was the fact that Frank Flannery and Fine Gael have been practically joined together like Siamese twins for years. Flannery's involvement goes right back to the days of Garret FitzGerald.

He is credited with masterminding the party's electoral strategy after Michael Noonan's disastrous tenure as party leader, serving both as a director of "organisation and strategy" for Fine Gael and later as the director of elections, a role from which he has stepped down only in the last few weeks. There are few figures so closely aligned, and at such a high level, with Fine Gael for the last decades than Frank Flannery – and to be fair to him, he has always been extremely loyal and dedicated to the party.

That loyalty, however, is clearly not reciprocated. The Taoiseach not only did not mention Frank Flannery by name during Leader's Questions last Monday, he also sought to downplay the importance which Mr Flannery had long enjoyed within Fine Gael, insisting: "My only engagements with the man the deputy mentioned have been purely political in terms of elections and constituencies." There's ingratitude for you. Later he added dismissively: "I meet many people."

It marked a reappearance of the Taoiseach who insisted in the White House on St Patrick's Day that anyone with concerns about the state of the country could "call me anytime". Flannery was being reduced to one of "many people", all of whom were regarded as equal by the Government. With every word, Enda sought to put clear blue(shirt) water between himself and a man who, one would have thought, at least deserves credit for putting the party in government despite its own best efforts to remain incompetent and unpopular. Even FF at its most Machiavellian never washed its hands of Bertie Ahern as thoroughly as Enda was washing his worried mitts of Frank Flannery last week.

Should we be surprised? Probably not. On a list of whose skin should be saved in a crisis, his own will always be a politician's top priority. Flannery was an asset. Now he's a liability. So it's bye, bye, Frankie, and don't let the door hit you on the way out.

Yet it's possible to be unsurprised but still disappointed when reminded how little loyalty counts in Leinster House. Not just because it is a personally unappealing trait to throw your friends to the wolves when they cease to be useful, but because it represents a more general shirking of responsibility that cannot help but manifest itself in other ways.

Take the inquiry which has now been established into various mishaps and mess-ups within and around the Minister of Justice. The suspicion beforehand was that the terms of reference which the Government laid down for the tribunal of inquiry into these matters would be so narrow that Supreme Court judge Nial Fennelly would find many avenues of relevant inquiry closed off to him. In fact, the opposite has proved the case.

The Government has instead established an "everything but the kitchen sink" sort of inquiry, whose terms of reference include the taping of non-emergency calls to and from garda stations; the specific concerns about how this practice impacted on the Sophie du Plantier murder inquiry; whether any information obtained through such recordings was used improperly or unlawfully; who knew about the practice in the Garda Siochana, the Attorney General's office, the DPP's office and the Department of Justice "amongst others"; as well as the sequence of events leading to the resignation of the Garda Commissioner, not least the handling of the letter which was sent by Martin Callinan to the Department of Justice, but which was not seen by Justice Minister Alan Shatter for a number of weeks.

At this stage, it wouldn't surprise anyone if Judge Fennelly was also asked to look for Shergar whilst he's at it. Nial Fennelly has been given a veritable Black Forest of information and misinformation to navigate.

He's expected to complete this wide-ranging inquiry by the end of the year, which looks optimistic in the extreme. The Du Plantier element of the inquiry alone could take longer.

Chances are that it will all drag on into next year – and if it does, the Government's unlikely to lose any sleep at the inevitable delay. Cynics might even say the longer, the better so far as the Government is concerned.

People are already wearying of this affair. It's been months now since the possible bugging of GSOC set alarm bells ringing. There have been further developments, but not enough of them to stop the public's eyes collectively glazing over when they hear the words "Alan Shatter".

By the time the truth is fully known, the incident may well have slipped into history. We'll forget the details. It will all get jumbled up in our heads, blending into one generalised soup of disquiet, half remembering that something wasn't right without being able to place what it was or who did it or what it meant.

Why would anyone in Government find that an onerous outcome? Inquiries, no matter how well run and organised, and this one is likely to be extremely efficient and forensic, have been used as carpets under which governments can brush as much dust as possible for as long as possible and hope the rest of us don't see it in the intervening period.

It doesn't have to be this way. In an effort to address serious concerns around its own practices, the Rehab Group has appointed management consultant Eddie Molloy to address and identify problems within the organisation. Everyone seems to agree that he will stand for no nonsense and will expect his recommendations to be implemented in full. More significantly, these changes will be enacted as he goes along, as a matter of urgency, not at the end of the conclusion of some lengthy investigation.

Is it too much to expect the Government to tackle problems within Irish political culture – the lack of communication; the dearth of trans- parency; the impatience with accountability – with the same thoroughness instead of stringing out the process and hoping we all get bored in the meantime?

Apparently it is.

Sunday Independent

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