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Enda's trump card gone rogue simply can't be reinvented


Minister for Children James Reilly

Minister for Children James Reilly

Minister for Children James Reilly

Whoever thought James Reilly would evolve into the ghost that could haunt Enda Kenny into early retirement?

There was once a time when Dr Reilly was Enda's perceived trump card. That, however, was a long time ago, for today, poor James is a political rogue card who simply cannot be reinvented.

After that bit of cabinet butchery, where Dr James was hacked out of health and dumped into the elephants' graveyard of the children's ministry, it must surely have been hoped that a fire-blanket would be put over the unfortunate adventures of James and the giant HSE.

But whilst those who pray that there might be an empty chair in the Taoiseach's office prior to 2016 are also hoping Alan Shatter and the way he might look, or worse still, talk about you on the Late Late Show, might shorten Enda's tenure, affable blustering James is still Enda's greatest problem.

He might no longer be the health minister, but as the daydreams about tax cuts are trampled by the cyclops of the HSE and its immeasurable budgetary over-run, Reilly is the political ghost that will not go away.

Enda might have moved him, but Dr James is the ­political equivalent of that DNA on the hands of Lady Macbeth.

Such, indeed, is the level of bad karma surrounding the doctor, he is the political Cain who is grabbing Leo, as well as Enda, in a potentially fatal embrace.

So, how did it all go so terribly wrong for James?

Back in 2011, Dr James was certainly not shy about promoting himself as being a new breeze crossed with elements of a hurricane, which would blow away the cobwebs that had gathered around the hapless Harney regime.

Under James, we were assiduously informed that the talking would be straight, the shooting fast, and that when it came to running the Department, it would definitely be a case of Reilly's way or the highway.

The problem with all of this bravado was that it failed to take into account that if the mandarin class were not on board, or at least under control, then Dr Reilly's fine and noble plans would be all dragged down a series of dark alley ways and strangled at birth.

At the time, one senior mandarin source noted that "the problem with James is that he is used to running a small doctor's surgery in Dublin North''.

By contrast, there was, he warned, "a lot more complexity involved in running a 100,000-strong corporate body".

It is a measure of the Mr Pickwick-style innocence of a politician, who was in Leinster House for less than four years, that Mr Reilly would ever have thought that the hairy spiders of the mandarin class would let the bright new butterfly of reform enjoy a risk-free birth.

By the end of 2013, the hundred thousand men and women of the HSE had certainly done for Reilly's one-man army. The minister did not exactly help his own cause either, via a series of farcical controversies over how so many health centres appeared in the constituencies of cabinet colleagues and Dr Reilly himself.

The nearness of the end was signalled by Budget 2014, where the great plan of the Government to see this slink through the Dail chamber as silently as a thin cat creeping down an alley way in a rough town, were foiled when James and his giant 666 million over-run knocked over so many bins that every dog started to bark.

In fairness, despite his somewhat rough exterior, it is difficult not to feel some sympathy for the cabinet bête noire.

If the Troika, who by all accounts were more than relieved to get out the door in one piece, were not able to put manners on the HSE, what chance did poor Dr Reilly have?

One of the many problems with Dr James, however, was that his bludgeoning 'my way or the high way' manner means he is a political physician who, more often than not, wounds rather than heals himself.

All politicians, and particularly cabinet ministers, are essentially sole traders, but most have the sense to realise that the cultivation of allies is a necessary evil.

Reilly's incapacities in this regard though, meant that he was turned into the cabinet equivalent of the poor piglet, whose tail is nipped by every other member of the litter.

As he turned into part scapegoat, part 'bottler' style figure, the cuter cabinet foxes sheltered behind the minister when Brendan came wielding the knife.

For a time, Reilly was sustained by his status as Enda's special pet, but such happy creatures can be very disposable. Reilly certainly had an argument for claiming that, in health, 'the limits of austerity' had been reached. But logic is not a feature of the sort of rough 'I've got mine' school of rough trading that leads up to a budget.

The other great problem was one of personality, for Reilly is a creature of the Bertie Ahern era who often looks as though he would have been far happier in FF.

He was the child of that sort of politics of social partnership where you could bluster into Bertie's office, rambling about the need for five hundred million, and the worst that could happen was that Bertie would say, 'Ah jaysus, James, you're a desperate man' as he signed the chit.

The minister's Fianna Fail Lite rough-and-tumble style was, however, never going to work in the court of Mr Howlin, for this is a place of neat and tidy souls, whose ledger is always balanced.

Sadly, our de facto Finance Minister (if only for cuts) Mr Howlin, like any good teacher, became increasingly unimpressed by poor Reilly's habitual fiscal unpunctuality, the confused algorithms and logarithms, the blots, the ink stains, the crossings out and wrong answers that used to litter his scrunched up exercise book.

Of course, all those troubles were supposed to end after the cabinet reshuffle when Dr Reilly suddenly became Dr Who.

Instead, as Yogi Berra once famously said, 'its a case of deja vu all over again' as ministers watch Leo's HSE cyclops galloping in, grabbing all that 'lovely extra lolly we were supposed to have'.

Last year, Reilly's difficulties were already sparking concerns that health could have a serious impact on the politically critical bailout (remember?... no, thought not) and the council and European elections.

Now, the worry is that the crazy legacy of our affable rogue elephant of a health minister could derail the general election campaign and Enda ... or Leo for that matter.

The good news is that James, at least, is having a whale of a time enjoying ice-bucket challenges.

Indeed, his capacity for empathy and advocacy means the nation's least favourite doctor could even be a success in his new department.

By contrast, as Leo tries to mop away the blood seeping up through the carpet, it is ironic to note that back in 2013, the view was that 'if it goes wrong for James, the last thing the department needs is another medic in health'.

Sadly, as Reilly hangs over Mr Varadkar's future like the latter-day jolly-bearded equivalent of the ghost of Christmas past, all one can say in response to that concern is 'we are where we are'.

NAME: James Reilly

AGE: 59

POSITION: Minister for Children and Youth Affairs

IN THE NEWS BECAUSE: The chaos he left behind in health means his successor, Leo Varadkar, is in the news the whole time... and not in a good way either. It is a legacy that could yet sink the current or the future leader of Fine Gael.

Sunday Independent