Fine Gael may have been rusty when it came back to government in 2011, but nobody can accuse them of being slow learners. When Taoiseach Enda Kenny kept repeating his mantra that Ireland is the best small country in the world in which to do business in, little did we suspect he was, in part, referring to the corridors of Leinster House and the lobbying business involving his political right-hand man.
Frank Flannery was regarded as too politically toxic this week to continue in his role as Fine Gael’s chief strategist, while elsewhere, regardless of his toxic capacity to attract controversy, Justice Minister Alan Shatter continued about his business.
There is a sense of slippage about the Government, and Fine Gael in particular, that makes you wonder what is going on with Enda Kenny. Is he finding it too hard to keep a handle on things, missing the restraint of the troika?
Since they’ve left, there is a sense of us reverting to our “old politics” with the talk of tax cuts, and the sense that austerity has left us, despite the fact that in next October’s budget we face another “adjustment” of €2bn. On top of that has been the self-serving wall of sound that has surrounded Minister Alan Shatter.
On the night of the recent Fine Gael ard fheis it was rich of the Taoiseach to turn on those he said had been “playing politics” with the Garda Siochána Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) controversy. The release by the Garda Inspectorate of the report on the way the penalty points system has been operated brought matters to a new level.
There was comfort in realising there is an arm of the State involved in Garda oversight which is working, and allowed to work, somewhat effectively. Conversely though, the results of that report which found “consistent and widespread breaches of points policy” made the brass neck approach of Minister Shatter, backed up by the Taoiseach, even more incredible.
The ongoing situations surrounding Minister Shatter continue to have a corrosive effect on the Government. It is remarkable that after so many weeks of controversy he has not yet reached a point of needing to resign. This situation is proving highly unusual in terms of its longevity, the various prongs to it – GSOC, penalty points, whistleblowers — the various dramatis personae involved, and the unshakeable arrogance of Minister Shatter. The attempt to shut it down, with the appointment of senior counsel Seán Guerin by the Cabinet, to see if a commission of investigation is necessary, gave only a temporary reprieve.
If ever a Taoiseach needed to grab a situation by the scruff of the neck it was this one, but Enda Kenny just keeps appearing like a “butter fingers” here with his inability to take control.
The situation regarding Frank Flannery has been no less surprising. I’ve known Frank for years, it would be hard not to if you were covering Irish politics with any seriousness. I like him. I particularly liked debating politics with him, as he has a top-class political brain. I have no doubt that apart from Enda Kenny he is the man most responsible for Fine Gael returning to power.
As Newstalk broadcaster, and former Fine Gael minister, Ivan Yates wrote in a newspaper column on Wednesday, it is impossible to overstate the impact of Frank Flannery’s resignation on the party and the Taoiseach. “It represents an earthquake within the party measuring off the end of the Richter scale, more significant than any ministerial casualty”.
I agree that it is doubtful that Enda Kenny would have become Taoiseach were it not for Frank Flannery’s support and skill.
Yates also speculated the former party handler felt so isolated from the party hierarchy, by their abandonment of him in recent weeks, he also decided to step down as director of elections and as party trustee, as well as a director of the Rehab Group.
But what else could the Taoiseach and his ministerial colleagues have been expected to do in these circumstances? They certainly owe gratitude and loyalty to Frank Flannery but his own grasp of politics must tell him that it would only have added damage for them to express it publicly at this time.
Anyway how could they defend his decision not to appear before the Public Accounts Committee, while at the same time being seen strolling around Leinster House to which he had widespread access. How could they utter words of praise or thanks about a man to whom they may have owed their seat at the Cabinet table when it had been revealed that the same man had been paid to lobby them by Rehab and Philantrophy Ireland? What they must wonder now is what further revelations await them concerning Mr Flannery’s Rehab pension, or any other lobbying work he may have conducted?
It adds to the appalling optics that in these two cases we happen to be dealing with Rehab, a group dealing with disabilities and another with philantrophy. In the case of the latter we join the dots to see Mr Flannery appointed to a forum on philantrophy by the Environment Minister Phil Hogan — the man who he would probably have liaised with most closely in terms of Fine Gael electoral strategy.
We learn that Philantrophy Ireland was given over €600,000 by the Department of the Environment in 2012, the same year that Mr Flannery started to work for it on a consultancy basis.
THE vast bulk of that money from the department went to the National Giving Campaign. In a nice piece of circularity this campaign was one of the key recommendations of the aforementioned philantrophy forum chaired by Mr Flannery. We’ve been assured that the €60,000 paid to Mr Flannery was not funded out of the National Giving Campaign, nor any other public money.
The most puzzling part is how such an astute operator as Frank Flannery put himself into this position in the first place, or how he imagined for a second that it was an alright way to be carrying on, or that it would never be found out. It’s the hubris of it all that really astounds.
At least in the case of Fianna Fáil we could say that the party had been so many years in power it had become drunk and corrupted on it. But if this is what Fine Gael can produce after just three years in office they will find themselves in a poor position to be doling out lectures to others on probity.
It’s a relief to see the Cabinet members taking flight for the annual St Patrick’s Day global extravaganza. Back at home we need a break from them.