Daniel McConnell: Loveless marriage of convenience exposed by O'Gorman's outburst

The willingness of TDs and ministers to openly disagree with the Taoiseach points to the weakness of Micheál Martin's authority
Daniel McConnell: Loveless marriage of convenience exposed by O'Gorman's outburst

Eye of the storm: After expressing the hope that Glanbia's proposed plans would not be subject to any more appeals, Taoiseach Micheál Martin was publicly rebuked by children's minister Roderic O'Gorman.
File picture: Julien Behal 

How is Roderic O’Gorman still a minister in Cabinet?

This is despite what, in normal times, was a completely unacceptable undermining of his own Taoiseach, as seen by many others in Government.

“He is a lucky boy we are still in a pandemic or this would have been a much bigger deal,” said one senior Government figure.

Such dissent in normal times would be met with an immediate move to dismiss or force a resignation, but O’Gorman’s attack on Micheál Martin went unsanctioned.

The Green Party’s legal super-brain, O’Gorman was on radio the other morning and asked about Micheál Martin’s decision to call on An Taisce, the national trust body, to cease and desist from its objections to a planned cheese plant in Kilkenny.

Taoiseach urges no further appeals 

In the Dáil the day before, Martin urged that no further appeals be made against the project, after the High Court dismissed An Taisce’s challenge against the decision of An Bord Pleanála to grant planning permission for the development of a €140m cheese processing plant.

Independent TD for Tipperary Mattie McGrath called for a debate on the funding of An Taisce, which he said, is getting €2.5m annually from different Government agencies and claimed they are “causing a wreck in rural Ireland”.

Responding, Martin said he would appeal that there would be no further appeals against this project now, given the fact that the courts have ruled very clearly in relation to it and that many, many jobs depend on it.

We can't be 'absolutist'  

"There has to be balance in terms of how we all behave in society," the Taoiseach said. 

We can't all be absolutist in pursuit of our own objectives to the exclusion of the wellbeing of others in society. 

"And I think the balance has been tipped in the wrong scale here now, completely and it will create division," he said. 

Cue fury from the Green Party, who are livid at a perceived attempt by the Taoiseach to interfere in the planning process.

Green Party TD Steven Matthews, the chair of the Oireachtas housing committee, said he was “disappointed” with the Taoiseach’s comments on An Taisce, adding that the body has an important role in the protection of our natural environment and in sustainable land use and planning.

Unseemly row brewing for weeks

While this issue broke out into an unseemly row within the Government this week, in truth this matter has been building for weeks and the Greens have increasingly found themselves at odds with their coalition partners.

Roderic O'Gorman and Micheál Martin — pictured at the publication of the mother and baby homes report — and their other Cabinet colleagues have enjoyed a solid working relationship, but this week's events have shown up fault-lines in the Coalition. File picture: Julien Behal 
Roderic O'Gorman and Micheál Martin — pictured at the publication of the mother and baby homes report — and their other Cabinet colleagues have enjoyed a solid working relationship, but this week's events have shown up fault-lines in the Coalition. File picture: Julien Behal 

On radio the following morning, O'Gorman made it clear to the Taoiseach to butt out and shut up.

He said it is "best for legal processes to play out" and that "politicians should leave them to play out".

While O’Gorman is said to have a very good working relationship with Martin, who has given him support on several key issues, there is no diluting what he said.

O’Gorman said that An Taisce is best placed to decide whether to pursue the appeal against the plant and is best placed to decide if they will continue with the appeal.

There was no doubting what O’Gorman’s message was and who his target was.

Rebuke shows weakness of Taoiseach's authority

While differences of opinion are to be expected within a Government of three parties, what is not normal is such an attack on the utterances of the leader under which a minister serves, even if that Taoiseach is from another party.

That O’Gorman felt comfortable enough to rebuke Martin in such a manner says a lot about the weakness of the Taoiseach’s authority but the lack of sanction in public speaks volumes too.

But, not to be outdone, Fine Gael chipped in with stinging criticism of An Taisce.

Minister for State adds blistering broadside

Perhaps riled by O’Gorman’s interview, less than an hour later on his local radio in Limerick, the Minister for State with responsibility for heritage and national parks, Patrick O’Donovan, launched a blistering broadside on the national trust.

He said that for An Taisce to "fly in the face" of a High Court decision and use public money for its appeal was very “shabby”.

O’Donovan criticised what he described as “serial objectors” with no connection with the areas in which developments are going ahead: 

We have people not from particular communities who just roll into town and object. We have to deal with this issue. 

O’Donovan said there was an “objectors charter” in Ireland at the moment: 

No matter where you come from or no matter where your position in society is, you can object to a person’s application for a house or a dairy plant.

Several TDs weigh in behind plant

The matter also surfaced at the parliamentary party meetings of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael on Wednesday night.

A raft of Fine Gael TDs including John Paul Phelan (who has shares in Glanbia), O’Donovan, Joe Carey, and Paul Kehoe all came out in favour of the project amid some sharp barbs about An Taisce and the Greens.

While there is no suggestion that a row over a cheese plant will be the cause of this Government to fall, it does, however, mark a point where tensions within the Coalition parties boiled over into the public arena.

The spat on radio on Thursday morning between Fine Gael’s Phelan and Neasa Hourigan of the Greens did little to improve matters.

Ugly division in otherwise solid Coalition

It is also perhaps a harbinger of things to come when some very difficult decisions have to be taken around cutting back on Covid-19 spending later this year.

Almost a year into this Coalition’s life, and with a corner being turned in relation to the vaccine rollout and the re-opening of the country, notwithstanding the “awful row” this week around An Taisce, there is a sense among some that this Government could last the full term.

While the backbenchers of each party may be keen to snipe and bitch at each other, within Cabinet, things have bedded down after a difficult and rocky start.

The three party leaders — Martin, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, and environment minister Eamon Ryan — have developed a dynamic which has proven to be solid and stable.

“They have learned to be tolerant of each other’s utterances and outbursts without them needing to precipitate a crisis,” said one minister.

Also, the axis of Michael McGrath and Paschal Donohoe in the two finance ministries has so far proven to be one that is rock solid, despite “some clear differences emerging between them". Any coalition government can only operate on a basis of trust, or it can fall apart very quickly — and spats like the one we saw this week can drain any relationship of that trust very quickly.

Party leaders walk a fine line

The three leaders and their ministers have to walk a fine line. On the one hand, they have to stay true to their party’s ideals, policies, and principles.

On the other, they have to constantly make compromises and deals in government in order to keep the show on the road.

It is a precarious balance at times and, like this week, ugly disputes can surface when positions become entrenched.

The Greens constantly feel slighted by the other two parties who they accuse of looking down their noses at them.

The other two parties would much rather not be in government with the Greens who they regard as irritants and overly dramatic snowflakes.

This loveless marriage of convenience may be strong enough to last, but this week certainly brought out the ugly side of coalition life.

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