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Man overboard. Just four months in office and the Government has lost its first back bencher. In fairness, they have a lot of them, so one could hardly matter that much.
The 2011 intake of new Fine Gael and Labour TDs are still so unfamiliar to us that, in all likelihood, it could take a while to notice that two or three of them had gone missing.
At this rate — losing one backbencher every four months — the Coalition could hold on to its 58-seat majority for another 10 years. That is if there wasn’t a general election due in just under five years’ time.
And that’s why this first defection might have slightly largely ramifications than originally thought.
Denis Naughten defied the party whip by voting for a Dail motion calling for accident and emergency facilities in Roscommon Hospital to remain open.
In doing so, he has significantly raised the pressure on his former colleagues. The Roscommon Hospital Committee has got a scalp. Other hospital committees and pressure groups committees will be taking notes.
Minister of State John Perry, who promised before the election to return breast cancer services at Sligo General Hospital, will find the heat being turned on him. He won’t be alone in the simmering pot. Government backbenchers in Portlaoise and across the country will find more targeted and co-ordinated campaigns being whipped up over the summer.
Never mind a winter of discontent, this government faces an autumn of anguish. Correction: the Fine Gael TDs face an autumn of anguish on the hospitals issue thanks to the Health Ministers upping the ante just before the election. (He’s the one who looks like a cross between Brian Blessed and Captain Birdseye)
If only he had played it calmer and cooler. Everyone could see Fine Gael and Labour were coasting to victory, but that was not enough for Fine Gael’s health spokesperson and deputy leader. Captain Blessed Birdseye wrote an open letter to the voters of Roscommon saying: “Fine Gael undertakes to retain the emergency surgical, medical and other health services at Roscommon Hospital.”
Last week the Taoiseach sought to defend the good Captain with the argument that Dr Reilly said this when he ” … was contesting the general election (and) he was not in possession of the information about the difficulties surrounding the recruitment of non-consultant hospital doctors”.
This did not, however, explain Deputy Naughten’s announcement at the end of March that Fine Gael had firmly “put a halt to any plans by the HSE to withdraw services from smaller hospitals”, and that it would not only protect, but would also enhance and develop these services.
One presumes that his words had Captain Blessed Birdseye’s blessings. If not, the Roscommon Deputy has made a rod for his own back. If he had, then there is still some considerable mileage left in this story.
This is also about management of expectations. The last government reduced expectations enormously, though as often by accident as by design. This Government came in building up expectations beyond anything that was deliverable.
Enda may come to regret leaving ministers in the portfolios they held in opposition. Yes, they are familiar with the minutiae of the issues, but they are also left to face those promises they made. Fine Gael could well end up reaping a whirlwind it started by itself and for itself. To quote the Book of Proverbs: “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind.” Put that in your sails, Captain.
Derek Mooney was political and policy adviser to a Cabinet Minister 2004-2010 and has worked as a public policy consultant since the mid-1990s
– Derek Mooney