I am probably one of the few people in politics today who really knows what Denis Naughten was going through last week. I had a comparable moment of truth over 20 years ago when I was faced with a similar choice to the one that faced Denis and Frank Feighan last Wednesday.
In 1988, I also stood up to my own party and government when I opted to place loyalty to my constituents’ needs above party loyalty and to vote against the closure of Barrington’s Hospital in Limerick.
While I had no doubts then, or indeed now, that I had taken the right decision, it was still not an easy move. I was not merely defying the Fianna Fail party; I was defying a party led by Charlie Haughey. This was at the height of the Uno Duce, Uno Voce era.
I was just six years in the Dail. I was sitting on the backbenches of a single-party government that was back in office for barely one year. To say that my parliamentary party colleagues were displeased is to understate the situation considerably.
While many of them doubtless understood and maybe even sympathised with my situation, they also knew that being seen to befriend me would earn the ire of the leadership. I spent many lonely months in Leinster House following that vote, isolated from party friends and colleagues.
Denis, whose father Liam was elected to the Dail in 1982 for the first time with me, now faces a similar situation. I hear he is already being moved from his office on one of the Fine Gael corridors and banished to some secluded Leinster House backwater.
The trauma for Denis may be greater than it was for me, as it was only just over a year ago since he sat on the Fine Gael front bench as a Cabinet minister-in-waiting. Up to 2007, as the party’s spokesperson on Transport and Agriculture, he had helped Enda Kenny rebuild and re-invigorate a dying Fine Gael.
After the 2007 election, he became increasingly unsure of Enda’s leadership style and acted, along with almost half the Dail party, to move Enda aside in favour of Richard Bruton. Now, just 13 months later, he finds that it is he who is being moved. Now he is outside a party he and his late father served well — and all because he confidently told his constituents of the assurances he had received from his party’s deputy leader and Health Minister.
I still have some sympathy for Frank Feighan. Like his constituency colleague, he too believed the assurances he got from Minister Reilly and told his worried constituents that all would be well with retaining Accident and Emergency services at Roscommon.
Like Denis, he was also faced with an enormous dilemma last Wednesday in the Dail chamber. While I might not agree with the conclusion he reached, I know how much pressure he had to withstand last week.
I don’t doubt that Frank sincerely believes he has done the right thing, though I strongly suspect all he has really managed to do is to take the heat off his health minister for a short while longer.
This is a debacle of Minister Reilly’s own making. For the past year or more, the then health minister-in-waiting was telling patients across the country that his party’s policy was against closures and reductions in services. Last October, he said “. . . but when the Government’s immediate reaction is to close theatres and wards or to withdraw frontline services to save money, we do have a problem, as this is a lazy way to attack our difficult situation.”
His better way to attack the difficult situation is to make his backbenchers pay the price for his electoral foolhardiness. All I had to contend with was my party leader’s ire. I didn’t have the added pressure of a health minister determined to undermine me as well. While I can understand much about what Denis and Frank have gone through, I just cannot understand that.