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John Downing: Shortall speech is a warning on the future of this Coalition

SEVEN years ago, almost to the very day, Roisin Shortall told a group of journalists at a dinner table in Clonmel how she "hated culchies". As the conversation wore on, she very reasonably explained that her sentiment was founded on living near to Croke Park and was much more targeted and justified.

She more specifically disliked yob late-comers to the big match, who at that time parked with no care for whose path they blocked, threw litter about as a reflex and, as the after-match evening wore on, were uninhibited about sanitary arrangements.

Few among the 80,000-plus people who head to Croke Park next Sunday would disagree with the Dublin North West Labour TD and know that these days clampers, CCTV and camera phones mean that such behaviour is best avoided.

The story helps us to understand Roisin Shortall as a strong woman who speaks her mind. She is also a 'true believer' who, after 20 years in Dail Eireann, still wants to make a difference.

This week, the former teacher of deaf children is the toast of the Opposition -- and especially Fianna Fail. Yes, the Government won a confidence vote in Health Minister Dr James Reilly with ease on Tuesday night.

But Ms Shortall, a junior health minister responsible for primary care, rather pointedly did not refer to her boss by name in her Dail speech of support. She also quietly but strongly voiced her disappointment at failures to deliver health reforms. Her words could well have been voiced by an opposition TD, bar the fact that they were more eloquent and forceful for being so understated.

It was the latest flashpoint in a series of tensions between the embattled Fine Gael minister -- now fighting several personal and political battles -- and his Labour Party junior minister.

Earlier this summer, she expressed her dissatisfaction at the way in which health spending cuts were publicised.

This row is more than just "differences of emphasis" -- it is a clash which has the potential to do lasting damage to the Coalition. It has further stoked up Fine Gael backbenchers, whose irritation at Ms Shortall is summed up by the shorthand term "the red tail wagging the blue dog".

Roisin Shortall comes from Labour's awkward squad and is abhorred by the choices which now confront this cash-strapped Government, arguing that cuts will penalise the poorest and most vulnerable. In the past, she shunned a frontbench position under Labour leader Ruairi Quinn. Her colleagues contrast her stance with her fellow party member, Kathleen Lynch, who is also a junior health minster.

On Tuesday, Ms Lynch spoke strongly and personally in support of Dr Reilly. "Kathleen is more street-smart and in for the long haul," one source at Leinster House said last night.

That said, it was notable that the Government yesterday published legislation for free GP doctor cover and signalled that it could be enacted later this year. This was one of the major complaints voiced by Ms Shortall on Tuesday night.

That might defuse things but it could also prove something of a sticking plaster put in place beside the others as the main government structure continues to absorb internal shocks. Those with longer memories around Leinster House will recall Fianna Fail's Jack Lynch sweeping to power with a clear 20-seat majority in June 1977.

On the evening of his election, Lynch expressed fears about the size of his majority. By December 1979, he had been ousted and his party lost the next election.

Similarly, the Fianna Fail/Labour Government put together by Albert Reynolds in January 1993 had a 36-seat majority -- and it lasted only two-and-a-half years.

This Kenny-Gilmore Government came to power in March 2011 with a whopping 60-seat majority. Already, it has lost three TDs -- two Labour and one Fine Gael.

True, it could coast through the five-year term pledged by the Taoiseach even at the current rates of attrition. But that is not the point. The point is that experience teaches us big majorities create scope for dissension.

The most effective government in recent years was Bertie Ahern's minority 'three-legged stool', which ran smoothly for a full five years from 1997 to 2002. There was little scope for messing and so they all toed the line for the most part.

The reality is that large-majority governments are a potent threat to themselves. Individual TDs -- and even junior ministers -- feel they can take solo runs with impunity. Then one row borrows another and the relationship degrades to a point of unworkability.

Dr Reilly and Ms Shortall really need to find a better way of doing business.

Irish Independent