Lenihan gets retaliation in first over Tánaiste’s treaty comments

IT was a classic example of damage limitation. Before Brian Lenihan was even asked yesterday about the issue, he addressed it himself by spinning out the official line.

Get your retaliation in first, in other words.

The issue in question was, of course, comments made by Tánaiste Mary Coughlan on Monday in which she suggested the pro-treaty parties needed to increase their efforts to get Lisbon passed. One media report suggested Ms Coughlan was referring to all of the pro-treaty parties, Fianna Fáil included.

But another suggested she had effectively singled out Fine Gael and Labour for criticism, expressing concern that they were not doing enough.

Whatever the case, the comments risked reopening last year’s rift between the parties. Even though they all agreed on Lisbon, they clashed bitterly over which was working hardest to get the treaty passed.

Taoiseach Brian Cowen had famously started that row, of course, by appearing to suggest Fine Gael and Labour were not pulling their weight. He disputed the interpretation put on his remarks, but the damage was done. Lisbon went down in flames, and the clashes between the three parties didn’t help.

Understandably, Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour were all keen to avoid a repeat of that debacle. Hence, at a Lisbon press conference, Mr Lenihan went out of his way to praise Fine Gael and Labour before any reporter asked him about Ms Coughlan’s comments.

“I have to say I’m very satisfied with the commitment which Fine Gael and Labour have shown to the campaign,” he said, before proceeding to cite the efforts of his constituency colleagues, Labour TD Joan Burton and Fine Gael TD Leo Varadkar, as examples of the hard work being done.

“So there’s an all-party campaign under way which is very strong… As far as national issues are concerned, it’s clear that the parties are working together to promote a Yes vote.”

Fine Gael and Labour similarly played their part by refusing to make a big issue of Ms Coughlan’s comments.

Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny made a quip about the matter in the Dáil, but that was it. Unlike last time, his party did not confront FF about the issue or seek a retraction. Privately, they grumbled about how Ms Coughlan was “exactly like Cowen” — in other words, a tribal politician unable to praise Opposition parties, in Fine Gael’s view. But publicly, they bit their lips.

Labour did likewise. One party source said their annoyance would be “conveyed to people [in Fianna Fáil] privately”, but they were “determined not to respond” publicly.

So the damage was contained. And the Tánaiste will probably feel hard done by, given she was simply urging parties to push on. But the incident will further remind Fianna Fáil — as if they needed reminding — that the second most senior politician in the country is a liability to them at press conferences.


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