Monday 19 August 2019

John Downing: 'Just how does Fine Gael solve a problem like Maria Bailey?'


Maria Bailey TD. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Maria Bailey TD. Photo: Gerry Mooney
John Downing

John Downing

It would be wise to resist the temptation to sing the old 'Sound of Music' ditty, 'How do you solve a problem like Maria?' in Fine Gael circles right now. The dilemma around Maria Bailey's ill-starred compensation case was never good for laughs among the party faithful.

By Monday morning there were many in the parliamentary party who would have gladly forgotten the whole débâcle after the 'Sunday Independent' report that the Dún Laoghaire TD had withdrawn her ill-judged lawsuit against a Dublin hotel.

But by noon on Monday their dismay had turned to anger as Ms Bailey had given an extraordinary interview to RTÉ's Seán O'Rourke in which she compounded the political fall-out from the previous week's events.

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Two ministers publicly said she should not have done that interview - and one of them, Health Minister Simon Harris, said she should at least have awaited an expected meeting with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

Well that meeting will happen very soon, perhaps as soon as today or tomorrow, after Mr Varadkar's return from the EU leaders' summit in Brussels last night. There has been much talk about "disciplinary measures" - but it is hard to see what for.

Ms Bailey has said the case is now withdrawn. Even if Mr Varadkar, his senior officials at party headquarters, or Fine Gael's national executive had access to the court documents surrounding the case, they would hardly be entitled to begin their own trial on the rights and wrongs of it all.

Previous moves for censure against established politicians in the past followed on from completed court proceedings. There is no such thing here.

Then there is the prospect of a catch-all charge of "bringing the party into disrepute". That could be a long and contested process which would also sustain the continued bad publicity impacting on the whole Fine Gael organisation. But you can't entirely rule it out.

It is also worth noting that Mr Varadkar's Dáil numbers could not be tighter at present. He cannot afford the loss of another party TD in tight divisions.

The reality is Ms Bailey is definitely guilty of playing a very poor political hand around all of this right up to Monday. But if the Fine Gael mandarins were to take disciplinary action on foot of that one, then they would be very busy indeed.

Yet Mr Varadkar does have one very potent move open to him. It is the removal of the chairmanship of the Oireachtas housing and planning committee which carries some prestige and €10,000 per year in extra pay.

There is for and against such a move at a time of tight Dáil arithmetic. But it is also clear there is, at best, limited sympathy for her at present in the party. In the Dáil yesterday Business Minister Heather Humphreys denounced compensation culture. She did not have to cite Ms Bailey's name - the Opposition TDs did it for her.

Irish Independent

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