Regina Doherty and Mary Mitchell O’Connor face backlash from colleagues

Fine Gael’s Regina Doherty and Mary Mitchell O’Connor are facing a major backlash from colleagues at a meeting of the party’s ministers tomorrow, writes Daniel McConnell.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, the Fine Gael leader, has called the gathering ahead of the first Cabinet meeting of the new term on Wednesday.

Both ministers are set to be challenged about their summer-time gaffes over the old-age pension and teachers’ pay respectively.

“The meeting will, of course, look back at how the summer went and, certainly, there is some annoyance at Regina’s and Mary’s performance on the two issues,” said one minister.

Junior education minister Ms Mitchell O’Connor has been criticised by her ministerial colleagues, who have described her comments on teachers’ pay as “deeply unhelpful”.

She baldly stated that she supported calls to restore parity of pay for teachers, which would cost at least €70m, and up to €240m, if applied across the public sector.

Speaking to the Irish Examiner over the weekend, senior ministers have taken a dim view of the comments, insisting they have angered Finance and Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe.

“Given she was almost dropped altogether, her comments were stupid, as it ramped up an issue which the Government has done a lot to contain,” said another minister.

“Comments like that are unhelpful,” said one minister. “Mary’s comments are personal. It doesn’t help when a junior minister for education makes comments like that. I know Paschal is not happy about it.”

Such was the anger among the ranks, that it had been suggested that she was about to be sacked, but sources close to Mr Varadkar have played down such talk.

Ms Doherty has been criticised by her colleagues for her statement that she would want to see a minimum of a €5 increase in the old-age pension, when the overall additional money available in the budget is only about €300m.

Having told reporters in Glasnevin on August 20 that her priority in the budget would be lone parents, comments from her quarters that a fiver would be the minimum she would expect for the old-age pension were described as Ms Doherty having “gone off the reservation”.

“Paschal and Leo are looking for ministers to hold the line and not drive up expectations, which drives them both mad,” said the minister. “This is the sort of messing which cost us seats in 2016.

Mr Varadkar and Mr Donohoe are seeking to bring forward a budget that will lay out spending and revenue estimates for up to three years, as they fear this is likely to be their last budget before a general election.

“A lot of focus is now on beefing up the numbers for three years, while keeping something in reserve, in case growth slows down, but there is a fear this will be our last go before an election,” a minister said.

The minister made it clear that Fine Gael could find itself out of office for a generation, should it lose the next election, and that is why the upcoming budget is seen as “make or break”.

This article first appeared on the Irish Examiner.

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