Sunday 15 September 2019

Johnny Fallon: We’re facing into a winter of discontent for Labour

Health Minister Dr James Reilly and Roisin Shortall TD
Health Minister Dr James Reilly and Roisin Shortall TD

IRISH politics has a tradition where winter terms can be the ones that see the most bloodletting. This winter seems like being no different. Already, Roisin Shortall has become the first casualty. I criticised Shortall recently for making an admirable speech in the Dail during the confidence motion on James Reilly but then proceeding to vote confidence in him. On this occasion she deserves some respect.

It has been clear to even the most casual observer that all was not well in the Department of Health. Shortall clearly does not believe that Reilly has the plan or the personality to be able to drive the necessary changes in the health service. It is also clear that she was under considerable pressure to just get on with things and stay quiet. This is the kind of mantra that puts the survival of a government over all else. Shortall has proved she has had enough of that mantra and that if you don’t agree with a policy, there comes a point where you are better off not compromising and simply walking away.

Shortall has taken the only honourable course open to her such was the level of division. It was also clear that James Reilly was under no pressure to meet her half way, it was his way or the highway.

This story will not end here. Labour has already lost a number of well known figures. A clear division is appearing in the party. The assumption is that Labour cannot rock the boat because they would fare so badly in an election. But there are quite a few backbenchers who would rather take their chances tomorrow on the back of a principled stand and at 14pc in the polls, than wait full term and be seen as a lapdog afraid of elections and lacking in principles and languishing at 6pc in the polls. Because at the rate things are going that is where they are headed.

In reality, Enda Kenny will do everything he can to avoid an election. If Labour really decides to push for something and show their mettle then Kenny will be inclined to give in to them. He will maintain the government at all costs.

The division in Labour centres on those at the top and those on the backbenches and in the wider organisation. The likes of Gilmore, Rabbitte, Howlin and Quinn are on a last hurrah. They will not be back around the cabinet table, therefore they too are determined that this government will stay the course. Gilmore was at pains to tell the public that the row between Shortall and Reilly was ‘greatly exaggerated’. The real problem now is that Gilmore can no longer be seen to toe this line. For many it will appear shocking that in a week where Reilly and Phil Hogan hit the headlines, but were not put under any pressure, it is a Labour minister that had to resign.

Labour may yet come looking for a head at the next available opportunity and if not then Labour will need some massive policy concessions from both FG and the EU. IF Gilmore does not heed this then he risks losing the confidence of his own troops. He must react and he must be seen to stand up to FG.

Joan Burton hovers dangerously around this bear pit. She continues to be the one upsetting FG, the minister that’s seen to stand up for more of Labour policy. No doubt she has also accepted the reality of the situation and that cuts are necessary but she continues to look at other areas and to take FG to task on some more rightwing assumptions. Pressure on Burton will grow over the coming months; Gilmore cannot afford to be seen as too close to FG.

This is the first resignation of this term, it would be a brave man who would suggest that we will not have any more. We are all familiar with the phrase, ‘These are the times that try men’s souls’ and looking ahead we can safely say that these are the times that will try any politician’s principles.

Johnny Fallon is a political consultant

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