SINCE the crash of 2008, one or two ministers have tended to find themselves at the epicentre of a controversy after each year’s budget: then finance minister, Brian Lenihan, for his introduction of the universal social charge, in 2010; James Reilly, in health, in 2012; Alan Kelly, on Irish Water, last year. These are just a few.
This year, the budget had seemingly passed without any major flashpoint, aside from a few grumbles about the tone and tenor of Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone’s new childcare package. At 4pm on Wednesday, 27 hours after the delivery of the budget, Leinster House resembled a ghost town.
The post-budget phone-in, on Sean O’Rourke’s show on RTÉ, went without incident, and it seemed the budget had passed off successfully, and Paschal Donohoe could finally take to his bed, for the first time in a month, free of worry.
Then, just a couple of hours later, Jobs Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor found herself under fire from her own colleagues.
As Juno McEnroe and Elaine Loughlin reported on the front page of this newspaper on Thursday, outraged rural Fine Gael deputies “tore strips out of” Mitchell O’Connor at a party meeting.
A presentation she gave backfired and TDs turned on her. There were “fireworks” between TDs and Mitchell O’Connor, who tried to leave the meeting a number of times.
Having spoken to ministers and TDs alike, there is no question that O’Connor got a right pasting from TDs.
“At the PP meeting, the week of the budget, as a minister, you do not go in unprepared. And she appeared to be so, in comparison to Leo (Varadkar) and Simon (Coveney), who both gave comprehensive briefings as to what they were doing,” one senior Cabinet minister told me.
Varadkar firstly gave the parliamentary party a powerpoint presentation on the budget, which was described as “sophisticated” and well-delivered. Coveney followed up by giving a detailed handout to TDs about his help-to-buy scheme — and, typically of the aspirant leader, it was comprehensive and thorough.
The temperature in the room rose significantly when the rookie minister stood up to give hers.
“It was embarrassing, to be honest. She managed to get up everyone’s nose so quickly because her phone wouldn’t work. The gulf in class from the two lads was incredible,” one veteran TD informs me.
“She stood up, reading from her phone. It kept crashing, in need of a password... She spoke about how brilliant her department was. That really annoyed people,” another said.
Of great surprise was the fact that it was Sligo-Leitrim TD, Tony McLoughlin, who lashed the minister about job creation in his constituency, contributing three times to the meeting.
“It’s because of Brexit, the lack of job opportunities, too. With all the jobs coming to Dublin, they’re [politicians] feeling more isolated than ever before,” added another source.
McLoughlin confirmed there were ‘exchanges’: “There should be incentives in the North-West for jobs, in my opinion. There are a lot of them announced in Dublin and along the east coast. We are a border constituency, and, with Brexit, we need to be protected.”
Clare TD, Joe Carey, also took issue with the jobs minister.
“Carey and Tony tore strips off her. She got cranky,” added the source.
Mitchell O’Connor told McLoughlin that she had holidayed in Sligo and it was “thriving”, to which the TD came back angrier.
Carey also confronted Mitchell O’Connor about how he arrived at her department last week with a delegation from home, and her special adviser, former journalist, Alan Cantwell, was “unaware” of 240 job losses in Clarecastle, at the Roche Ireland pharmaceutical factory.
Eventually, having had enough, Mitchell O’Connor said she had to leave the meeting and junior minister, Pat Breen, would take any further questions. Her exit was not well received.
She came out fighting the following day, on radio, saying she was not too badly bruised by the previous night’s events.
The episode has led some in Fine Gael to question Mitchell O’Connor’s capabilities.
Some people in Fine Gael, like Michelle Mulherin, have put the attacks on Mitchell O’Connor down to gender. But the willingness of TDs to kick lumps out of a senior minister is nobody’s fault but Enda Kenny’s, the man who appointed her in the first place.
Her promotion to Cabinet was of some surprise, but the decision to put her into the economically sensitive post of jobs, enterprise and innovation shocked many more, given her distinct lack of business experience.
Many asked why Richard Bruton — who had performed well in the job in the last government — was not left there and Mitchell O’Connor put into education, given that she is a school principal.
She has not overwhelmed people since taking office, and a “car-crash interview” with this newspaper left many unimpressed. Her inability to name her predecessor — Labour’s Ged Nash, whom she simply called “the lad from Drogheda” — was a low light.
But, probably most significant was the hard slapdown she got from Kenny over a proposal to give tax breaks to encourage emigrants home.
Late last month, Mitchell O’Connor’s department gave a briefing on the proposal to the media and it became front-page news. But, by lunchtime, it was as dead as a dodo.
In the Dáil, Kenny dismissed the idea of a 30% tax rate for returning emigrant graduates.
The so-called emigrants’ tax was to be aimed at those earning more than €75,000, in specialist jobs in areas such as medicine, science, IT and finance, and those who were eligible would pay just 30%.
Mr Kenny was replying in the Dáil to Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin, who asked if he accepted that the proposal was “unfair and discriminatory’’.
Mr Kenny replied: “Yes, I do.” He said it would be “unfair and discriminatory, of course” if a returning emigrant paid a different rate of tax, simply because they had come back to live in Ireland. His outright rejection was a humiliation for Mitchell O’Connor, and she made no secret of her displeasure.
By so openly sanctioning his own minister, Kenny has cut the legs from under her in the early months of her cabinet career. As his choice, Mitchell O’Connor, with some legitimacy, should have deserved more support and loyalty from her leader. But Kenny, once again, proved himself a ruthless operator when he needs to be.
However, by doing what he has done, Kenny cleared the way for last Wednesday’s attacks to take place.
If Mitchell O’Connor was worthy of consideration for Cabinet in the first place, then she certainly has deserved better, in terms of support from her boss.
But the privilege of being a minister means you have to be able to do the job and the events of last week have again brought her performance into focus.
Ultimately, the blame for who caused the events of last Wednesday night must lie with the man who allowed it all to happen: Enda Kenny.