Why we need to talk about Joan, James and Phil…


THREE weeks ago we learned of Enda Kenny’s big plan to take personal charge of reforms at the departments of Health and Social Protection, but what activity have we seen since?

Well, not much. This may be down to the fact that the political spotlight has, since the Meath East result, understandably moved from the Taoiseach’s travails with his non-performing ministers to the hapless Tanaiste and his non-performing party.

Reluctant though I am to offer Messers Gilmore, Howlin, Quinn or Rabbitte any solace or abatement from their current difficulties, I do think we need to shift the focus back on to the Taoiseach’s apparent plan to override two of his ministers.

It would be encouraging to think that the Taoiseach had chosen to become hands-on because he had endured enough of both James Reilly’s and Joan Burton’s inability to manage budgets. It would even be reassuring to imagine that his personal intervention and his shunting aside of these ineffectual ministers was prompted by the near 60 per cent refusal rates for disability allowances or by the respite care debacle. But, regrettably, it isn’t the case. It is not that long since Enda was declaring complete faith and confidence in his ministers and ruling out any possibility of their being reshuffled before 2014.

So what has happened in the interim to convince Enda and his advisers that his statement was a big mistake? It was the same reason why we have heard nothing about the plan over the past 10 days: Meath East. Within days of hitting the doors of Meath East both Fine Gael and Labour canvassers were getting a lot of very negative flack about both Reilly and Burton. The signal went back that something had to be done about both – and fast. But rather than facing up to his own error in allowing them to remain on, the Taoiseach and his advisers went in search of a way that allows the Taoiseach to admonish them without losing face.

But why is the Taoiseach confining his interventions to just these two ministers? There are several other candidates around the Cabinet table who could do with his help – one name in particular stands out: Phil Hogan. Based on the conversations I had on the doorsteps of both Meath East and my own Limerick constituency Hogan’s name should not only be on Enda’s “must intervene” list, it should be in joint first place with Reilly’s. The only possible reason for keeping both Reilly and Hogan at the table is that they make Alan Shatter look reasoned and sympathetic in comparison.

Since their appointments both men have shown an unrivalled capacity to lurch from crisis to chaos with the occasional rest stop for utter confusion. Look at the key issues currently on Hogan’s desk: water charges, the property tax and ghost estates. But rather than acting to tackle these issues, he was sent into hiding in the hope that he might take the issues there with him. Within hours of his re-emergence last week he was back spreading mayhem. First, in what looked like a re-enactment of the Roisin Shortall vs James Reilly debacle, he went on RTE’s News at One to point the finger at his Labour Party junior minister Jan O’Sullivan, saying that she was responsible for drawing up the list of exempted estates. Less than 24 hours later he was telling homeowners, including many who are currently experiencing difficulties getting water from their taps, that he is determined to press on with water charging from January 1, 2014, even though he has still not carried out the full nationwide water supply audit promised two years ago.

While we all know that “we need to talk about Phil” we also know it won’t happen – even Kenny knows not to bite off more than he can chew. Not that adding his name would achieve much anyway. According to the “senior government sources” who put the intervention story out there, the Taoiseach’s personal intervention would be based on the model drafted by Richard Bruton for the Government’s Action Plan for Jobs. Doesn’t that make you feel inspired?

The leader of the Government is going to use the exact same oversight model used not to tackle our unemployment crisis to also not deliver reforms in health social welfare and environment. You couldn’t make it up – except someone already has.

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