TÁNAISTE Mary Coughlan flew to the Saudi Arabian desert yesterday leaving a storm of controversy over her ability to manage the Department of Enterprise.
As she left for the trade mission, party colleagues came to her defence and criticised the comments of John McGuinness, the sacked junior minister who told the Late Late Show she was not able to run the department.
This weekend he continued his broadside against Ms Coughlan, party leadership and the Government as a Sunday Business Post opinion poll showed support for Fianna Fáil had fallen 5% in a month, from 28%.
But defending Ms Coughlan, Cavan Monaghan TD Margaret Conlon said there was no widespread discontent.
“I believe the Tánaiste is doing a good job and a difficult job. I think people will be annoyed [with Mr McGuinness] and rightly so. I am annoyed at the fact we have a parliamentary party and I never heard him make any of those statements in a meeting. Why did he only make his feelings known over the last week when he lost his job?” she said.
New junior minister Dara Calleary, who effectively replaced Mr McGuinness in Enterprise, had similar views. He said Mr McGuinness’s opinions should have been made to the parliamentary party if related to policy and to the Tánaiste if they were personal.
“To be honest I have had a lot of interaction with the Tánaiste in the last couple of days and she is completely on top of her brief. She is completely aware of what needs to be done,” he said.
However, Tipperary south backbencher Mattie McGrath said in his view Ms Coughlan was better suited to her former role in the Department of Agriculture.
He was listed among more than two dozen TDs allegedly angry at the leadership of the cabinet.
In Donegal, the dispute acted as a lightening rod for rebel TD Jim McDaid and supporting councillors who last night held a local election launch pitted against Fianna Fáil headquarters.
Labour leader Eamon Gilmore, whose party jumped to 19% in the poll, said if the rebel TDs are true to the their word then the Tánaiste no longer has the support of the Dáil.
“The credibility of the Tánaiste has been called into question. Mary Coughlan has never had the confidence of the opposition parties as Minister for Enterprise, but if she no longer enjoys the confidence of her former minister of state, John McGuinness, and several other Fianna Fáil backbenchers, it would appear that she no longer has the confidence of a majority in the Dáil,” he said.
The cabinet appeared to adopt the tactic of collective responsibility in the dispute and did not want attention to focus on Ms Coughlan.
Taoiseach Brian Cowen, speaking at his party’s annual commemoration of those executed after the Easter Rising, said he would not discipline Mr McGuinness.
“The Tánaiste and all members of the Government are working hard with the support of the parliamentary party and the support of the wider party base to pursue policies that are necessary in the current circumstances,” he said.
Finance minister Brian Lenihan said the Government would remain on its course and Mr McGuinness had a future in the party.
On RTÉ’s The Week in Politics, Children’s Minister Barry Andrews said while he was not surprised by the outburst, he did not appreciate the decision to single out the Tánaiste.
“The personality issues I completely reject. They are out of hand and uncalled for. But in terms of policy, John has always spoken very strongly in terms of policy, but all of us are doing this, we are in a completely new time in terms of policy development,” he said.
Mr Cowen said the polls were not his priority and he recognised the decisions were unpopular.
Fine Gael was the big winner rising to 33% support from 31% last month.
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