DANIEL MCCONNELL: Past week's events show Fine Gael have learnt nothing from the general election

Finian McGrath, pictured with Catalina Devandas Aguilar and Emily Logan at the launch of report on disabilities. Pic: Paul Sharp/sharppix

Two issues — water charges and the O’Higgins report — have illustrated again why Enda Kenny was his party’s greatest impediment to electoral success, writes Daniel McConnell, Political Editor.

THE events of the past week have shown one thing very clearly.

Fine Gael, as a party in Government, have learnt nothing from the general election and at the very top the arrogance that cost them so many seats in February remains deeply embedded.

Two different issues — Finian McGrath’s water charges and the O’Higgins report — have illustrated once again why Enda Kenny was his party’s greatest impediment to electoral success.

Arrogance!

Past week's events show Fine Gael have learnt nothing from the general election

Firstly, their treatment of junior minister Finian McGrath over his decision to not pay his water charges, which he yesterday paid to avoid 'distraction'.

Once it emerged that McGrath had not paid his water charges on a point of principle, a queue of eager Fine Gael ministers lined up to berate their new Cabinet colleague and high handedly tut-tutted at him, as if he were a naughty school boy.

Kenny, Simon Coveney, Simon Harris, Frances Fitzgerald, Michael Creed, and Regina Doherty all turned on their ministerial “equal” Finian McGrath, stating that he needed to lead by example and pay his water charges.

They gave soon to be junior minister John Halligan similar treatment over his similar refusal not to pay.

While many people will disagree with their decision not to pay their water charges, McGrath and Halligan’s position has been made legitimate by the series of cock-ups Kenny and his gang of loyal followers made of Irish Water.

John Halligan speaking to Angela Keating while seeking votes in Waterford City. Picture: Patrick Browne
John Halligan speaking to Angela Keating while seeking votes in Waterford City. Picture: Patrick Browne

The decision by Fine Gael to concede on the issue of suspending water charges to Fianna Fáil further legitimised McGrath’s position, as did the refusal of both parties to reduce the €500 minimum level at which enforcement proceedings can be brought.

Given the caps on charges, this decision meant that anyone who has not paid their water charges to date is still under the €500 level and is therefore free from prosecution.

Had the system remained intact then their condemnations would have some credibility, but it hasn’t and their position rings hallow.

But, in truth, Fine Gael know this.

So what was the ganging up on Finian all about? It smacked of schoolyard bully boy tactics, a first week hazing for the new boy in the class. And their actions cut little ice with Halligan who let fly at his soon to be ministerial colleagues.

Speaking to me on Wednesday, a defiant John Halligan told “arrogant” Fine Gael ministers to “shut their mouths” and leave him and McGrath alone over their refusal to pay water charges.

Halligan singled out comments by new chief whip Regina Doherty earlier in the week as most unhelpful.

Doherty told TDs who haven’t paid their water bills to do so as they won’t “magically disappear”.

Fine Gael’s Regina Doherty at Leinster House, Dublin. Picture: Gareth Chaney Collins
Fine Gael’s Regina Doherty at Leinster House, Dublin. Picture: Gareth Chaney Collins

Halligan did not pull his punches.

“I don’t know what they are at. They should have shut their mouths on it and consulted with us first. It is only creating tension and showing a type of arrogance again,” he said.

He argued Fine Gael knew his position and that of McGrath in relation to water charges during the negotiations.

Halligan said he hasn’t paid any water charges as he hasn’t been billed, but that he is opposed to the principle of paying water charges.

“It is interesting in that I haven’t even been billed. I wouldn’t pay it anyway being honest.

“I think there are two issues. When they were negotiating this Programme for Government with us and ministerial positions, they knew our positions on this, well. It is also a newly structured Dáil with the whip being removed on votes of conscious and so on.

We are only obliged to support the Government on votes of confidence and the budget,” he added. “When they were offering Finian McGrath a ministry, they knew he hadn’t paid his water charges, he had been saying it in the Dáil,” the Waterford TD said.

Repeatedly, the Independents have spoken positively of the engagement they had with people like Coveney, Harris, and Paschal Donohoe in the talks but how appalled they were at Kenny’s attitude toward them and that of his inner team.

“They would look down their noses at us, as if we were dirt. An inconvenience. Kenny made no secret of his distaste for our lot,” one Independent Alliance source told me yesterday.

Last Tuesday, Kenny’s press spokesman told a briefing of political correspondents that the decision of Alan Shatter to resign as minister was “entirely his own”.

That is simply not true.

Shatter himself has stated as much as recently as yesterday. “I was left with no option to resign,” he said when speaking about his meeting with Kenny on the publication of the now maligned Guerin report in May 2014.

Alan Shatter
Alan Shatter

Shatter had asked for 24 hours to read the Guerin report, but Kenny turned him down saying he would not be able to express confidence in him in the Dáil later that day.

Shatter has said Kenny told him the future of the Government rested on his decision. A fait accompli and it is now apparent Kenny forced Shatter’s resignation in order to save his own skin and that of the Government.

Shatter, who had become embroiled in a series of controversies in the months running up to his resignation, simply lost the confidence of his leader who himself was under pressure.

You see, given the crises, Kenny himself had taken effective control of justice matters, and it was his actions which led to the early resignation of Martin Callinan the then Garda Commissioner.

These were actions taken without the knowledge of his then Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore and were done in a bid to try and contain the political fallout.

Like Shatter, Callinan was given the warning that Kenny and his government would not be able to express confidence in him and duly he fell on his sword.

The Fennelly inquiry found that Mr Kenny did “not intend to put pressure” on Mr Callinan to retire but also said it was reasonable for Mr Callinan to conclude he should consider his position.

Martin Callinan
Martin Callinan

A statement that could be read both ways, and most certainly it is reasonable to conclude at a minimum that Kenny did not go out of his way to support the beleaguered police chief.

With justice matters set to dominate the political agenda when the 32nd Dáil begins in earnest on Tuesday, Kenny will be absent from the theatre, as he will be on his way to the United States.

It will be for his new Tánaiste, Frances Fitzgerald, to hold the fort and defend the line for her boss.

She will have to clarify several matters. Firstly, does Enda Kenny intend apologising to Callinan and Shatter for forcing their exits. Secondly, does he accept he misled the Dáil, as charged by Shatter yesterday.

The Taoiseach has become a virtual recluse in recent times, with a brief doorstep at a book launch his only main media engagement of note in several weeks.

He didn’t even feel the need to hold a press conference to launch the programme for Government, as has been the norm since time immemorial.

Kenny is a deeply wounded political leader but his actions of the past week have shown that he and many of those around him, have failed to learn the lessons of why so many people didn’t vote for him.


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