Political Notebook: The more Governments change, the more they stay the same

CONFUSION. Incompetence. People singing from very different hymn sheets.

CONFUSION. Incompetence. People singing from very different hymn sheets.

It all sounds very familiar. We have been there before.

These were justifiable charges levelled at previous Fianna Fail-led Governments. Remember them?

Remember the Progressive Democrats who promised a new kind of politics and went on to self-destruct amidst their collusion in the destruction of the Irish economy?

All that was to end with this Government.

There would be a new kind of politics. Voters believed it and voted accordingly, although their priority was to wreak their revenge on Fianna Fail.

And so here we are, in the run-up to a hairshirt budget, and the Government cannot get its act together on the core responsibility of running the country.

Nobody expected an overnight economic miracle from the Coalition. But people were expecting competence, which was sadly lacking in the past.

The debacle surrounding the row within the Department of Health between Minister Dr James Reilly and former Minister of State Roisin Shortall continues to roll on.

And the Government is all over the place. The Taoseach, Enda Kenny, and the Tanaiste, Eamon Gilmore, are happy with Dr Reilly.

Ms Shortall’s successor, Labour’s Alex White, is happy with the Minister. Other Cabinet Ministers have also expressed confidence in him.

However, Minister Leo Varadkar could not be certain that the inclusion of Balbriggan and Swords in the Minister’s Dublin North constituency as primary care centres was not stroke politics.

Minister Joan Burton was talking on Sunday in terms of a full explanation from the Minister on the issue. So was Minister of State Lucinda Creighton.

Does anybody talk to anybody in this Government?

Surely it should have been possible by now for Ministers and Ministers of State to have found out just what this relatively routine matter is all about.

After all, they all have advisers and spin doctors, whose responsibility is to watch the Minister’s back and find out what is going on.

As for Mr Kenny and Mr Gilmore, they seem to have a curious detachment from their responsibilities.

They are the political heads of the Caolition Government. Their failure to resolve the differences in the Department of Health, before Ms Shortall’s shock resignation brought them to a head, reflects very badly on them.

Following the announcement on last Wednesday night, the optics looked awful.

Mr Gilmore was in New York at the United Nations doing worthy but largely irrelevant work from Ireland’s point of view, given that the The Economic War has to be our priority all day, every day.

Mr Kenny, meanwhile, was interviewed by the media on his way to a black tie function.

Mr Gilmore was fulfilling his role as Minister for Foreign Affairs. Mr Kenny was on his way to a routine function as Taoiseach.

But the symbolism was truly awful, given the confusion within the most important Department next to the Department of Finance.

Ms Shortall is a conviction politician. She walked away from a handsome salary, the perks of office and an enhanced pension at the end of it all.

So she resigned on what she considered to be an issue of principle. All the indicators are that Dr Reilly is also committed. Whether he has managed to get things right or wrong, he certainly hit the ground running in the Department.

There is nothing worse than a Minister simply squatting in his or her office, essentially redundant, at a time of crisis. Mr Kenny and Mr Gilmore should have been hands-on from early on.

They should have made it clear, in blunt terms, to Dr Reilly and Ms Shortall that they want matters resolved.

Given the appalling state of the health services, it might have been wise to have given Ms Shortall full responsibility for primary care with a budget and no interference from Dr Reilly. There is more than enough to be done in the Department of Health to allow for a clear division of responsibilities.

Ms Shortall has spoken of how a meeting, before the summer break, involving herself, Dr Reilly, the Taoiseach and the Tanaiste, got nowhere. The holidays intervened. By last month, nothing had been resolved.

How, in heaven’s name, did Mr Kenny and Mr Gilmore allow the matter to fester over the summer? This country is in crisis. Politicians are entitled to their holidays, but they should ensure that a time bomb is not left ticking away in Government Buildings when they depart for their annual break.

According to Ms Shortall, the Tanaiste told her that he supported Dr Reilly.

Ultimately, she said, Mr Gilmore backed the Fine Gael Minister over her. It should never have come to that.

Indeed, if compromise was not forthcoming in the early summer from Dr Reilly and Ms Shortall, they should have been told in no uncertain terms that they would lose their jobs if they did not measure up.

It would seem that the priority among those in Government is not to rock the Fine Gael-Labour boat at all costs.

That is no way to fight the economic war..