Wednesday 16 October 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'A timely morality tale of sacrifice to save party's skin'

Distancing itself from Maria Bailey might be a cynical move by Fine Gael, but it's hardly a surprise, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

COLLEAGUES: Fine Gael TD’s Josepha Madigan, Kate O’Connell, Maria Bailey and Hildegarde Naughton. Photo: Gerry Mooney
COLLEAGUES: Fine Gael TD’s Josepha Madigan, Kate O’Connell, Maria Bailey and Hildegarde Naughton. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Eilis O'Hanlon

It's a truism in politics that your opponents are on the other side of the chamber, but the real enemies are on your own side. Maria Bailey has discovered that to her cost.

It's a truism in politics that your opponents are on the other side of the chamber, but the real enemies are on your own side. Maria Bailey has discovered that to her cost.

While the Opposition was making mischief with the Fine Gael TD's now-withdrawn claim for compensation after falling off a swing at a Dublin hotel - ably assisted by the media, which knows a good story when it sees one - it was her own party which was preparing to throw her to the wolves. Her treatment at the hands of fairweather friends shows the truth of the old adage: it's always the quiet ones that you have to watch out for.

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The clues were there. Former Justice Minister Alan Shatter's book, Frenzy and Betrayal, has been filleted for what it says about his erstwhile colleagues, but there's a gripping morality story in there too about what it's like to be offered up as a sacrifice when the party is under pressure and colleagues' minds turn to saving their own skins. His account of the 2016 election would make useful reading for the embattled Bailey.

Shatter was standing in Dublin Rathdown, a tightly contested three-seat constituency. Days before polling day, he discovered that the party was to do a leaflet drop in the form of a personal letter from the Taoiseach and the party's director of elections, Brian Hayes MEP, asking voters to cast their first preferences for Shatter's running mate, Josepha Madigan, then a councillor in Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown and a first-time candidate for the Dail. The reason given was to try and win two seats for FG, but he now suspects that it was a deliberate act to scupper his chances of re-election. Whatever the real reason, he lost, and Madigan won. Had it been a mistake, he says, he would have expected some calls of commiseration from his former colleagues.

None came. Ten days later Hayes did come to his house to say sorry, though it was "a personal apology of little value as [Hayes] was frank enough to admit his wife, Genevieve, insisted he do it."

Shatter admits he felt "totally betrayed". He had been a TD for 40 years, and had published more parliamentary bills, and had more enacted into law, than any Opposition deputy in Irish history, and helped negotiate the 2011 programme for government.

If a man of his standing could be treated in this shockingly ruthless way once he became inconvenient, Maria Bailey would be naive to imagine that she will be protected - as indeed would Josepha Madigan, who has come under pressure to reveal whether or not she provided legal advice to her southside colleague before the now infamous case of the girl on the swing.

It's easy to treat politicians as if they were made of stone. They have feelings too. When Enda Kenny eventually got to his feet in the Dail to praise his former Justice Minister following the release of the O'Higgins report which totally exonerated his reputation, the "insincerity and hypocrisy" of the spectacle was suffice to give Shatter "feelings of nausea and a splitting headache".

Maria Bailey seems to be feeling equally put upon, albeit that her woes are largely of her own making. She made matters immeasurably worse with an interview with Sean O'Rourke that was so spectacularly ill-judged in its self-pity that it scuppered any chance she might have had to put this saga behind her. "It's not that I did anything wrong, by the way" was particularly cack-handed.

It's possible to feel human sympathy for her while also being astonished at that lack of political self-awareness.

Bailey is right that the media can be brutal. Alan Shatter learned that too. But ultimately it's her own colleagues who will consign her to political purgatory if and when they decide that she's become surplus to requirements. It was her friend, fellow FG TD Kate O'Connell, who changed her profile picture on Facebook just minutes after the RTE interview, from one which featured Maria Bailey to one which didn't. A spokesperson didn't "see how it is relevant", and maybe it isn't, but it doesn't look encouraging.

The subsequent hiring by the party of a senior counsel to gather "all facts" strikes an equally ominous note.

FG has no obligation to help a TD who won't help herself, but nor should they pretend that they are ethically superior. Alan Farrell TD also took a compensation case involving an 8kmph impact and very minor injury. He just happened to do it at a time when it was more opportune.

His case came up last summer, when there was far less emphasis on the issue of rising insurance premiums. Circumstances beyond Bailey's control saw that hers come up as FG was both launching a crusade against the compo culture and heading into an election campaign. For the party to blame her for any reputational damage which FG has suffered lately, or even for falling short on its aim of overtaking Fianna Fail at local level, might be absurd, but since when did politicians ever allow a little thing like absurdity hold them back?

Health Minister Simon Harris even criticised Maria Bailey for "blaming lots of other people" rather than taking responsibility, which, from this government, definitely smacks of a "pot calling the kettle black" scenario.

Blaming lots of other people is exactly what ministers tried to do when the monstrous overspending on the National Children's Hospital was uncovered. With record numbers of homeless children, and a disorderly Brexit back on the cards, it's very convenient to find someone who can take the rap for any subsequent fall in popularity.

Having tasted a more sustained period of power than usual, the party now seems determined to cling on to it at any cost, and losing Maria Bailey would be considered a price more than worth paying.

"Bringing the party into disrepute is very serious," explains a source. If so, then there are plenty of other representatives who should be following her out of the door. She made a silly mistake. They're terrible at their jobs. Which is the worst sin in the grand scheme of things?

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