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Jody Corcoran: FG man and Labour women at war

Although unli-kely to cause serious instability in the short term, the now admitted "friction" between members of the Cabinet may yet amount to a crisis in the making for the Government.

The Agriculture Minister, Simon Coveney, chose the quiet days of Christmas to admit to the tensions, which he sought to ascribe to no more than an occasional clash of "strong personalities" at the cabinet table.

The issues which have arisen, primarily between Health Minister James Reilly and the Social Protection Minister Joan Burton, are more deep-seated than that, however.

The Department of Health and the Department of Social Protection are the two biggest spenders at a time when the Government is on an enforced austerity drive. It was inevitable, therefore, that these departments would become the battleground on which both Fine Gael and Labour would seek to protect their flanks.

Between now and the next scheduled election, it is unlikely that the Government will be engaged in anything other than the imposition of further cuts and taxes. In the absence of any will to tackle public sector pay and pensions, it would seem that the Departments of Health and Social Protection will continue to bear the brunt of cuts.

The friction first became evident in the run-up to the recent Budget when both Dr Reilly and Ms Burton moved clumsily to each protect their patch as best they could. The tension spilled over in the form of leaks, which both ministers engaged in weeks before the Budget. The tit-for-tat leaks served no purpose other than to scare the living wits out of the mostly already vulnerable, and led to accusations that the Government was effectively ruling through fear.

Eventually, Finance Minister Michael Noonan and Public Expenditure and Reform Minister Brendan Howlin were forced to intervene, calling a halt to the escalating row between Dr Reilly and Ms Burton, and, by extension, between Fine Gael and Labour. But, as we saw last week, the cessation was to prove temporary. And when the Dail returns, the tit-for-tat is set to resume and may eventually lead to all-out hostility unless the Taoiseach and Tanaiste manage to get on top of it.

There are other sources of tension within the Cabinet, of course, as there are in all governments, seen most notably in the recent resignation of Labour's Willie Penrose. Mr Penrose decided to walk away when he found he could exert no influence over the Fine Gael Justice and Defence Minister Alan Shatter in relation to the broken promise not to close an Army barracks in his constituency.

On that occasion, Mr Kenny and Mr Gilmore successfully papered over what would have been, at any other time, something of a crisis in government. But at a time of austerity, which will see the Government cut and tax between €2bn and €4bn a year between now and 2015, the resignation of Penrose passed off most unremarkably.

His replacement at Cabinet, the Labour Minister Jan O'Sullivan, provides the Social Protection Minister with another formidable ally at the Cabinet table.

Three Labour women, Ministers Burton, O'Sullivan, and the junior minister in the Department of Health, Roisin Shortall, now have the distinctly uncomfortable Dr Reilly in their sights. He is already somewhat bruised, what with having effectively lost the skirmish with Ms Burton before the Budget.

Dr Reilly's hands were somewhat tied, of course: almost 70 per cent of his total spend is earmarked for pay, which is to remain untouched thanks to the Croke Park Agreement. He was left with 30 per cent of his budget, therefore, from which to find cuts.

In the Budget, the Department of Health took the biggest cut, a significant €543m, followed by Social Protection with an adjustment of €475m. The cuts in social welfare were less than anticipated; the €475m figure was some €190m less than that projected in last year's National Development Plan.

The outcome, therefore, reflected a victory for Ms Burton whose department was initially expected to produce cuts of €750m. It is little wonder that Fine Gael TDs, in particular, are now openly talking about the need to revisit the Croke Park Agreement in advance of its scheduled end date in 2014.

Unless and until that happens, the friction which exists between Dr Reilly and Ms Burton, and therefore between Fine Gael and Labour, will worsen to the point that it may eventually threaten the stability of the Government.

Last week we got a foretaste of what is still to come and, also, the clearest signal yet that the row between the principals of the two biggest spending departments is far from resolved. Ms Burton's close friend, Ms Shortall -- she was first to empathise when her colleague was overlooked for Brendan Howlin's job -- has opened up another battle front with Dr Reilly.

With wondrous serendipity, a series of emails have been leaked to show Ms Shortall's deep frustration with Dr Reilly over the manner in which he has chosen to deal with the issue of the setting of fees for GPs involved in the winter flu vaccination campaign. It is worth repeating that if, in the past, a senior and junior minister in the same department were known to be so seriously at loggerheads, something of a crisis would arise.

In the letter emailed to Dr Reilly on October 21, 2011, Ms Shortall said he had refused four requests to speak to her about the fees to GPs issue. Ms Shortall also said it was "unacceptable" that she had been cut out of this process. Ms Shortall said she wanted "to express my dissatisfaction" with the manner in which the issue was being handled.

"I have tried to speak with you personally on several occasions over the past 48 hours. You refused each of these requests. You did arrange to speak with me by telephone this morning at 10am but I received no call. I have also over that time been endeavouring to speak with the secretary general and in spite of leaving messages with his office and emailing him, I have not had the courtesy of a reply.

"As Minister of State with responsibility for primary care, it is completely unacceptable that I have been excluded from an area of responsibility that I would have expected would have come under my remit."

On October 25, Dr Reilly told the Dail that the fee for GPs was to be cut from €42 to €28.50. On the same day he replied to Ms Shortall's email which he said he had seen only the day before. He said there appeared to have been a misunderstanding about who was going to telephone whom about the GP fee issue the previous week.

Whatever about that, there seems little expectation that love is going to break out any time soon between Dr Reilly and Ms Shortall, or between Dr Reilly and Ms Burton for that matter.

As Ms Shortall's email was being dissected over various Christmas lunches, elsewhere the Labour spin machine was in overdrive. Ms Burton's crusade against social welfare fraud was garnering results, or so we are led to believe. The import of these leaks was to show that while Dr Reilly was imposing cuts, willy nilly, Ms Burton was coming up with more imaginative ways to save money. Therefore, we were told, the number of welfare fraud-related anonymous reports to her department had risen from about 600 six years ago to 16,000 in 2011; the department had also tracked down €18m in payments to dead pensioners.

The subtext is this: Labour will protect its own (that is, public sector workers and those genuinely reliant on social welfare payments), while Fine Gael must slash and burn its way through a high-spending department which reaches everybody.

When the new political season gets under way, you would be well advised to keep a close eye on a row which is likely to get a lot worse before it gets better, if it gets better.

Sunday Independent