Taoiseach and his chief whip need to sing from the same hymn sheet

Asked if she may have to stand down Regina Doherty said: ‘The principle is more important than the job’, writes Alison O’Connor

Taoiseach and his chief whip need to sing from the same hymn sheet

THERE are many issues on the political plate of Taoiseach Enda Kenny as he begins the new year but one of the most pressing is what to do about his Government Chief Whip Regina Doherty.

Ms Doherty has had, in political terms, what can be described as a train wreck of a few weeks in terms of her utterances to the media.

As just an ordinary backbench Fine Gael TD her various comments would be noteworthy, but in her position as chief whip of a highly unstable government, they border on the extraordinary.

It looks likely, and indeed sensible, at this point that the Meath East TD will be replaced in her role.

Colleagues in Fine Gael, including ministers, are, to say the least of it, in a degree of shock at what they have heard and read, especially her comments encouraging civil disobedience in protest at proposed electricity pylons in parts of her Meath East constituency.

When the chief whip, from the party which traditionally prides itself on “law and order”, encourages people to refuse to comply with the law, the chagrin of colleagues is all the more acute.

A chief whip is traditionally seen as someone who has a good skill in throwing oil on troubled waters, and instilling good discipline, but lately Regina Doherty seems to be setting fire to the oil.

Among the party’s upper echelons she is quite well liked and said to be intellectually bright.

The decision in May by Taoiseach Enda Kenny to appoint her to the position of chief whip, who gets to sit at the cabinet table, was a surprise at the time.

The role requires a good knowledge of the parliamentary party, the various personalities involved, a good political nous, and an ability not just to feed information from the government to the backbenchers, but also the other way around.

Prior to this post she was not seen necessarily as a good or easy “mixer” in parliamentary party terms, and would have been viewed as not yet having the political experience needed for such a difficult task particularly with the make-up of the current Government.

Colleagues would have thought of her, in the current stage of her career, more in terms of being appointed a junior minister in somewhere like the Department of Enterprise where she could major on policy, which is one of her strong points.

She had also been making a reputation for herself as someone who would go out to bat for the Government when it was under pressure.

But her apparent Yuletide meltdown began in the days before Christmas when she said her opposition to a new North-South electricity interconnector from Co Meath to Co Tyrone, which would run through parts of her constituency, was more important to her than her position around the Cabinet table.

Asked if taking such a position might mean having to stand down from that position her reply was: “The principle is more important than a job”.

She wants the cable to be put entirely or partially underground and called for a Cabinet decision to overturn the Eirgrid plan which had just been given the go-ahead by An Bord Pleanála. She felt she had “no choice” in her stance and that local people had been “treated appallingly”.

At that point she said she did not know exactly what the outcome of her stand would be and had made no decisions.

Roll forward around 24 hours when she upped the ante by saying she would “fully support” anti-pylon protesters in any “civil disobedience” measures taken to prevent the interconnector. The fact that this occurred in the middle of Christmas week might explain why the story did not gain more traction.

But up she popped again in the first week of January and this time the target was more personal. As part of an interview she said she and her constituency colleague junior minister Helen McEntee do no get on and that Ms McEntee would “walk past me in the corridor and wouldn’t even blink her eyes”.

It’s hard to disagree with Sinn Féin councillor Darren O’Rourke who told local paper the Meath Chronicle that it was becoming difficult to keep track of Deputy Doherty’s “musings” and even harder to predict what she would say next.

Interestingly in the recent general election Regina Doherty got just over a 1,000 first preference votes more than Cllr O’Rourke in the Meath East constituency, and over 850 less than Helen McEntee.

That constituency was definitely one of the better ones for FG in that election, with two candidates getting seats. But clearly it was close and Sinn Féin put in a strong performance. Fianna Fáil’s Thomas Byrne topped the poll.

Last but by no means least on Regina Doherty’s Christmas hit parade was when she said, in yet another interview, there were “fabulous” people in Sinn Féin and insisted she would “of course” serve in government with the party.

“There are some incredible people in Sinn Féin; incredibly smart, articulate, thoughtful and could I work with them? Of course I could, yeah.”

Not only was it yet another unwanted and unexplained utterance from the chief whip as far as colleagues were concerned, but it confused them further because many of them had previously admired her staunch criticism of that party and its leader Gerry Adams, over its handling of sex abuse allegations.

Unsurprisingly Helen McEntee responded to the remarks made about her by saying these were utterly inappropriate comments to make about a colleague and she would be addressing them internally in Fine Gael.

It is difficult to see the chief whip being given anything but an exceptionally hard time when the Fine Gael party meets after the Christmas break.

It is also worth noting that the Taoiseach is said to be very close to the McEntee family, not least since the death of Helen’s father Shane, a junior minister who died in 2012.

To give some further context here just weeks after she was appointed chief whip by the Taoiseach Ms Doherty called on Enda Kenny to set out a timeline for his departure as Fine Gael leader. She subsequently apologised for the comment.

In other words she has “previous” when it comes to what is seen as speaking out of line. On that occasion she appeared to get away lightly.

The to-do list on the Taoiseach’s desk is ever growing with the increasingly deteriorating situation in the North, Brexit, the Trump fallout, public sector pay, abortion and how to keep a minority government ticking over. He does not need a chief whip that he cannot rely on.

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