O’Shea wielded the knife first but retribution followed swiftly

A reminder of just how brutal politics can be, says Political Editor, Paul O’Brien

EOIN O’SHEA tried to knife Kevin Cardiff in the back and Labour TDs responded yesterday by knifing Mr O’Shea in the front.

Politics can be a brutal business.

Like a lot of controversies in Irish life right now, this one dates all the way back to September 2008, when the Fianna Fáil-Green coalition guaranteed the banks.

As a senior official in the Department of Finance, Kevin Cardiff was heavily involved in that decision and the subsequent handling of the economic crisis.

Highly regarded and trusted by former finance minister Brian Lenihan, he was duly promoted to the top job in the department — secretary-general — in January 2010.

But the new Fine Gael-Labour administration didn’t want to retain a civil servant so influential in policy responses with which the two parties fundamentally disagreed.

They decided to shift Mr Cardiff to the European Court of Auditors and install new leadership at the department. But there were a couple of problems with this.

Firstly, a number of Irish and European politicians openly questioned Mr Cardiff’s suitability for the court role following the discovery of a €3.5 billion accounting error in the department.

Secondly, the outgoing Irish member of the court, Mr O’Shea, who was a Fianna Fáil appointee and whose term expires next March, didn’t want to go.

The first problem Fine Gael and Labour thought they could deal with, by getting their own TDs and MEPs to shut up and by lobbying key figures in the European Parliament to support Mr Cardiff.

The second problem seemed minor, because what did it matter if Mr O’Shea was upset?

As it turned out, it may have mattered a great deal.

Neither Fine Gael nor Labour likely anticipated that an angry Mr O’Shea lobbied two key MEPs to point to the potential problems with Mr Cardiff’s nomination. Mr O’Shea emailed Jens Geier and Ingeborg Grässle, both of whom are coordinators for different blocs of MEPs who sit on the European Parliament’s Budget Control Committee.

That committee scrutinises proposed appointments to the Court of Auditors, and as such, represents the first hurdle for nominees. Kevin Cardiff failed to clear that hurdle on Wednesday, when the committee decided by one vote to reject his nomination.

Although the final say on appointments falls to a full vote of the European Parliament — committee recommendations usually point the way. And so, the committee’s rejection of Mr Cardiff was a massive setback. As the coalition began the inquest into what had gone wrong, somebody in Labour learned of Mr O’Shea’s emails.

And so the party delivered a dose of political retribution yesterday by confronting Mr O’Shea in what was supposed to be a routine Oireachtas committee hearing about the work of the Court of Auditors.

It’s unlikely Mr O’Shea’s emails were decisive in the European committee’s decision to reject Mr Cardiff — there was no shortage of negative press about the nomination that could have informed the MEPs’ thinking. But the emails certainly didn’t help, and Mr O’Shea’s own cause wasn’t helped yesterday when they were uncovered.

At a subsequent press conference, the Taoiseach and Tánaiste refused to say if Mr O’Shea should step down. But they made it very clear he has absolutely no chance of reappointment to the court — even if Mr Cardiff’s nomination falls.

It seems the Government still believes it can push his nomination through the full vote of the European Parliament next month. But with MEPs expressing doubts about the wisdom of allowing it go that far, Mr Cardiff’s destination remains in doubt for now.

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