Last Monday, word emerged that Fine Gael junior minister Catherine Byrne was on the verge of voting against the Government.
It became known that Byrne, a TD for Dublin South Central and Minister for Drugs Strategy, was contemplating supporting a motion of no confidence in her party colleague, Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy.
For hours, the story, reported by most news outlets, went unchallenged from Byrne’s side.
She did not kill it, as she could have, were it untrue.
She let it fester and escalate.
By doing so, the only logical conclusion was that she was happy to have such uncertainty out in the public domain and happy for the motion of no-confidence to be escalated into a much greater issue than it had been.
The background to this was Byrne has publicly chastised Murphy over the proposed development of the State’s first so-called “cost-rental” housing estate in Inchicore, Dublin.
As reported by Olivia Kelly in the Irish Times, Byrne said the plans to build rental housing for low- and middle-income workers, instead of affordable homes which could be bought, at the site of the former St Michael’s estate would “destroy” the local community.
Announcing the plan, Murphy said the development would be the State’s first not-for-profit rental scheme; would be a “game changer” for the rental market, and had cross-party support.
However, Byrne, who was not an invited speaker at the event, took to the podium to castigate her senior colleague’s proposals.
“It’s probably one of the worst plans I’ve seen put forward for this site,” she said.
The cost-rental model would not create a sustainable community but would encourage “transient” renters, such as those working in the nearby St James’s Hospital, she said.
“It doesn’t make sustainable communities,” said Byrne. “It doesn’t give young people within this parish who get up every morning and go to work the opportunity to put down their roots and live in this community.
But, the enmity between the two goes beyond the one episode in Inchicore.
Sources within the party have made clear the two are not close and are according to some barely on speaking terms.
Not killing the story last Monday meant Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was asked about it in New York by reporters, including our own Elaine Loughlin.
She reported his comment that he would sack her were she to vote against the Government the following night.
Speaking at a UN summit in New York, Mr Varadkar said: “It’s of course the case if a minister can’t express confidence in their own colleagues then they can’t continue as a minister.
"We are a government, we make collective decisions together, and if a minister doesn’t have confidence in another minister and votes that way, then obviously they couldn’t continue. But, like I say, she hasn’t had this conversation with me yet.”
One could sense the annoyance in Varadkar’s comments at his junior minister.
That night, she tweeted a statement about being a lifelong resident of Inchicore and stressed her desire to do right by the locality.
No mention of Murphy or the news stories that were several hours old by this stage.
This only fuelled speculation that she was about to walk the plank.
All through Tuesday, Byrne was silent on the issue and the threat of her breaking ranks lingered in the air around Leinster House.
She had sit-down meetings with Murphy and Varadkar, separately, to try and resolve her concerns.
Sources say given the nature of the slap down from Varadkar in New York she had shied away from backing the motion and was staying put.
As the debate, called by Sinn Féin, began at 8pm, Byrne was not in the chamber, adding to the intrigue.
But as Murphy took to his feet to defend his record, Byrne was spotted entering the Dáil, where she took a seat on the backbenches. She sat and spoke to fellow junior minister John Paul Phelan and left again.
Then I got word via text that a statement was pending and that she was staying put.
Sure enough, a few minutes later, her statement landed signalling she had a constructive meeting with Murphy and Varadkar and she was happy to back her colleague.
Sources have said Varadkar did agree that the Government would “help her out” to deal with local issues given the projected spike in local populations given the planned development.
However, what was made clear was that the project would proceed as planned, without change.
Ultimately, Murphy won the vote by 59 votes to 49, with 29 abstentions, and many were left scratching their heads as to what Byrne was playing at.
But the immediate crisis, it appeared, was over.
Keen to find out, I contacted her yesterday.
When I sought answers from her, we shared a curt 44-second phone conversation, which went as follows.
DMC: “Daniel McConnell here from the Irish Examiner. I just wanted to let you know that I will be referring to you in my column tomorrow.”
CB: “That’s fine, no problem.”
DMC: “Could I just check one thing with you...”
CB: “No... [laughing] what do you want to check with me?”
DMC: “Well, word about you thinking about not voting with the Government circulated on Monday...”
CB: “I don’t know where that came from... I don’t know where that came from.”
DMC: “But you didn’t slap it down, that is my point.”
CB: “Look, listen I am not having this conversation with you. It’s over.
You can write what you like about me. OK.”
DMC: “That’s fine Catherine, I was just trying to be courteous by checking...”
CB: “Bye, bye, bye”.
The bottom line is that Byrne, despite her humiliating U-turn should have been sacked over this.
Not only did she hijack the event in July and sought to personally attack Murphy, her behaviour last Monday caused significant embarrassment to the minority Government.
Disagreements are fine and speaking out is all well and good, but she showed a disturbing political naivety in how she handled herself.
Calls for her sacking have circulated among many at the top table of Fine Gael and she finds herself isolated this weekend.
Minister after minister, speaking to me yesterday, said all things considered, she should no longer be in her job.
Some went further and said her remaining in position does open a question mark about Varadkar’s authority over his party.
Alas, given how tight the Dáil numbers are, Varadkar can’t sack her.
He needs her to stay on board — and talk yesterday of Louth TD Peter Fitzpatrick preparing to jump ship further underscored how vulnerable the Government’s numbers are.
Byrne can thank her lucky stars that the Taoiseach finds himself in such a tight spot or she would once again be languishing on the backbenches, where she deserves to be.
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