Thursday, October 04, 2012

The Nine Lives of Reilly

James Reilly may be thick, but he’s very, very far from being dense. There is an understanding abroad that a lack of previous political experience has stood against Doctor Reilly in his career as a politician. Rather than being a life-long party member, working his way through the ranks, Reilly was was a high profile candidate head-hunted by Fine Gael, just as George Lee was.

But this perception is not the reality. Of his current Fine Gael generation, Reilly may be the most cunning, the most devious, the most brilliant of them all.

The Minister for Health did a radio interview with Pat Kenny yesterday that is instructive of just how commanding a political presence James Reilly is. One of the distinctive features of a Pat Kenny interview is that Pat himself is seldom shy about showing his own grasp of a subject.

If he’s interviewing lovely Clodagh McKenna, Pat may comment that finds a cheeky glass of Chateauneuf-du-Pape goes particularly well with fish fingers, or complement Denis Lehane on Lehane's excellent grasp of Boston vernacular. Pat can seldom resist interrupting the sports reports to remark that Sir Alex ought to play Rooney in the hole behind the strikers, or that Padraig Harrington has been putting too much weight on the back foot while executing his putting stroke.

It’s how the guy is. In every gang he was ever in at school, Pat almost certainly played the role of Brains.

Yesterday though, Reilly blew Pat away with a fusillade of facts that not even RTÉ’s great savant could keep up with. Pat was naïve at the start in not carefully corralling Reilly at the start – Pat’s first question to the Minister was “what do you have to say about that story on the front page of the Independent today?”

Reilly saw open country, and romped into its wide open spaces. He gave Pat and the people of Ireland chapter and verse on Irish health policy, far more than non-experts can keep up with. Over half an hour the Minister discussed

  • the contrast between public private partnership and direct provision,
  • the personal cost to him of his involvement in politics,
  • the fluid nature of the criteria by which things are judged,
  • Roscommon Hospital,
  • the differences in hospital standards across the country,
  • the importance of metrics in patient outcomes,
  • his personal financial losses due to his service to the state,
  • the cuts in the Health budget since 2009,
  • his relationship with Róisín Shortall,
  • a defence of the people of Balbriggan against insult,
  • improvements in the Health service since his took charge,
  • the Health service frontline staff who have taken ownership,
  • and his own managerial style.

Half an hour of radio, with enough material for a book on the Health service. Pat Kenny and the listeners got swept away in the tide while Reilly remained dry on the shore.

Two questions remained unaddressed – did the Minister pull a stroke for his buddy, and what exactly are these criteria by which these sites are judged? All the rest are issues for other days.

If Minister Reilly didn’t bump Balbriggan and Swords onto the list it’s entirely possible that they are the only two locations on the list that are not there as a result of stroking. This is Ireland. We don't do “criteria.”

The only reason things happen here is because someone has made a better deal than someone else. We’re Irish, not German. We sell horses to each other as darkness falls on the fair and hope the horse we bought is less lame than the one we sold. We score that as a win.

But let’s take the Minister at his word, and take it that he didn’t pull the stroke and that criteria for judging these sites do exist, no matter how fluid they are. The sad fact for Reilly now is that none of that matters anymore. Events have overtaken them.

Eighteen years ago a situation developed between Labour and their then coalition partners, Fianna Fáil, where Labour got sick of being pushed around by Fianna Fáil. That situation is now developing again. The backbench anxiety has been added to by two MEPs, Phil Prendergast and Nessa Childers, publically calling on Minister Reilly to resign. This means it’s now a game of chicken.

Eamon Gilmore has to call for Reilly’s head, or else be exposed as the grand old duke of York. Enda Kenny owes his entire premiership to James Reilly and Phil Hogan, who were the only major party figures to support him during Bruton Minor’s ill-fated heave two years ago. So the question now is: who’s going to blink first?

Labour can’t back down from this. Sauce for the goose has to be sauce for the gander, or else Labour can’t preach to anyone ever again. And it goes without saying that not being able to preach would be a fate worse than death for that particular party.

Will Enda give Labour Reilly’s head? Or will he call Gilmore's bluff on collapsing the Government? Who fears the doorsteps most? Labour, or Fine Gael?