Friday 22 November 2019

Coalition's best hope is that review parks controversy

Alan Dukes
Alan Dukes

Shane Coleman

After months of relatively plain sailing - with a slow but steady rise in the coalition's poll numbers on the back of strong economic figures - Fine Gael and Labour have suddenly been hit by a storm surrounding the sale of Siteserv.

There has been some respite for them in the past couple of days. Firstly, with the appearance of Walter Hobbs, who oversaw the Siteserv process, on 'Primetime'. And then yesterday by the authority Alan Dukes' brought with a strong performance at his press conference and subsequent radio and television interviews.

Dukes is clearly furious with the Government over the terms of the review of the Siteserv sale. But he was emphatic in his assertion that the deal was the best that could have been done.

That certainly leaves the Coalition in a better place than it was on Thursday afternoon.

Walter Hobbs has put a really compelling case for its sale to the Denis O'Brien-owned Millington company.

He addressed the questions about the sale price, the €5m paid to shareholders, the involvement (or lack) of other bidders and the role of various legal and financial advisors. While his body language on television suggested he was far from comfortable in the public spotlight, he came across as genuine and at ease with a deal that, while not perfect, he believed was in the best interests of the taxpayer and Siteserv employees.

The worry for the Government is that the public might have switched off from what is fairly turgid and dull detail. And that all they see is former Fine Gael leaders, in the shape of Michael Noonan and Alan Dukes, involved in a deal that benefited the country's richest man. Throw in the whole water meters angle, wealthy shareholders benefiting from a bust company and the concerns expressed by the Department of Finance, and they may decide 'different government, same old story'.

That may be highly simplistic, unfair and inaccurate - Noonan and Dukes for example are clearly not close and there appears to be no love lost between Dukes and Fine Gael. But perception in these matters is often more important than the reality.

The opposition, including Fianna Fáil, is gunning for the Government on this one. And Fine Gael can hardly complain. Imagine the outrage it and Labour would have generated if Fianna Fáil was in government and this story had broken. It was Kenny who used the highly pejorative "axis of collusion" line about Fianna Fáil and the banks. Eamon Gilmore and Labour were never shy about using similar language.

Their best hope is that they've succeeded in parking the controversy with the review by the special liquidators of all deals done by IBRC and the public comments of Dukes and Hobbs. The opposition want a Commission of Investigation "completely detached from IBRC, Siteserv and the Department of Finance". That may still happen, depending on the result of the review and, perhaps more importantly, whether the story resumes the momentum of a couple of days back.

The Coalition is putting out all the stops to ensure that doesn't happen. Unlike with the series of revelations at the Department of Justice last year, it has been quick to face up to the problem - or at least the PR aspect of it.

The difference in Enda Kenny's performance on the subject in two consecutive days in the Dáil this week was marked. Noonan, meanwhile, was dispatched to Montrose and the 'Six-One News'. And Simon Harris, the rising star in Fine Gael, put in a strong performance on Thursday night's 'Primetime'.

But, for all that, it must be discomforting for Fine Gael to see its biggest asset, in the shape of Michael Noonan, on the back foot and being accused of avoiding "doing the right thing" in relation to IBRC for more than two years.

It's a charge emphatically rejected by his colleagues who say the documents released under FoI clearly demonstrate Noonan, in his dealings with Dukes and IBRC, standing full square behind his officials and their concerns.

It's hardly a surprise that relations between the Department of Finance and IBRC were not good. Relations between Finance and any organisation operating in what might be regarded as its patch are seldom without tensions. And in the words of one source, unpicking the carcass of Anglo and Irish Nationwide was never going to be pretty. But it does seem that the exchanges between the two sides were toxic.

Government sources say that at least this is healthier than the overly cosy relations that existed with the banks in the past and that Finance officials come out well from the whole affair.

Senior government figures are reasonably relaxed this weekend that they have headed off a controversy that they admit had the potential, earlier in the week, to be fatal.

We shall see.

Shane Coleman is presenter of the Sunday Show on

Irish Independent

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