Tuesday 12 November 2019

John Downing: Kenny will cut Reilly adrift if he can't kill this controversy

TRADITIONALLY, in British politics, a strong expression of support from the party leader can often spell the beginning of the end for a political heavy hitter.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has spent the past fortnight strongly expressing support for his Health Minister and deputy party leader, Dr James Reilly.

So how transferrable is that British maxim to the current situation of Dr Reilly?

Three simple questions occur as we try to unpick that one.

Firstly, can Dr Reilly take the Taoiseach's assurances at face value?

Secondly, how long can such declarations be relied upon?

Thirdly, what circumstances would lead to Mr Kenny withdrawing his support and forcing Dr Reilly's exit from office?

The answer to the first question is 'Yes' -- Dr Reilly can take his boss's support declarations seriously. The simple fact is that the Taoiseach has a huge amount of political capital committed to Dr Reilly.

True, if Mr Kenny knew in June 2010 and March 2011 what he has gradually found out over the course of the last year, he probably would not have made Dr Reilly first his deputy party leader and then his Health Minister.

The circumstances in June 2010 in which he made Dr Reilly deputy leader were unique.

Mr Kenny had just survived a Fine Gael leadership heave led by his deputy, Richard Bruton. As a rural party leader, he needed another Dublin TD as deputy leader to take Bruton's place. That did not leave a huge selection, given that several other Dublin TDs had been on the rebel side.

Dr Reilly was a first-time TD, elected in May 2007 for Dublin North. But he also carried the experience of having been president of the doctors' union, the Irish Medical Organisation, and had spent 30 years as a very successful GP.

In March 2011, when Enda Kenny named Dr Reilly as Health Minister, he upped that political investment considerably.

Dr Reilly would now oversee the spending of one euro in every three of taxpayers' money in a permanently troubled sector for which Fine Gael had promised radical change.

Much of the fortunes of Mr Kenny and his Government were now riding on the burly shoulders of Dr Reilly.

The last 12 months have brought a series of revelations, redolent of Charlie Haughey's Fianna Fail, about Dr Reilly's finances -- culminating in the unprecedented naming of a sitting minister in the debt defaulters' list, 'Stubbs Gazette'.

It is true that Dr Reilly has advanced some sound explanations regarding his extraordinary financial circumstances -- but he was adding them to his other explanations.

Similarly, his political travails surrounding the allocation of two healthcare centres to his constituency have left him explaining on the political front for the last fortnight.

THE problem with his political explanations is that they have shifted over time. Yesterday's Irish Independent revelations about the ownership of one chosen site in his constituency have not been satisfactorily answered.

Enda Kenny's 36 years at Leinster House tell him that too much explaining is really bad business in politics. But over that career Mr Kenny has also shown a good capacity for political loyalty -- not least in the nine years he spent defending his often-embattled party leader, John Bruton.

So, the answer to our second question is that Dr Reilly can rely on his boss's support for some time more.

But the third question -- what would have to change to spell the end for Reilly -- is the crucial one and the focus of most doubt.

The longer Dr Reilly is left explaining in various directions and the longer he appears capable of attracting controversy, the greater the likelihood that the Taoiseach will have to seriously reassess his political investment in him.

Irish Independent

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