Shortall may be gone, but big questions remain for Fine Gael and Labour

How the Government handles the James Reilly affair will be a litmus test of its promise to break from the corruption and dishonesty of Fianna Fail. By Eoin Ó Broin.

The James Reilly affair is nowhere near from over. Róisín Shortall may have gone, but big questions remain. How they are answered will have significant consequences for the Government, the two men at its helm and the parties they lead.

James Reilly has yet to provide a credible explanation for the addition of locations in his own constituency to the primary care centre priority list. Paul Cullen’s article in last Saturday’s Irish Times clearly demonstrates that Minister Reilly’s explanations to date simply don’t stack up.

Róisín Shortall’s matter-of-fact description of the decision as ‘stroke politics’ on RTÉ radio last Saturday demands a response from Minister Reilly. Ministers Varadkar and Creighton clearly concur, as do Labour party backbenchers such as Arthur Spring.

The key question is whether the Swords and Balbriggan locations were added to the list on the basis of medical need or in order to assist the re-election of the Minister for Health.

For a minister to make decisions involving taxpayer’s money and frontline service provision for purely electoral benefit is nothing short of corrupt. For a minister to give preference in the allocation of scarce resources or services to his own constituency irrespective of the objectively agreed criteria of his department is nothing short of corrupt.

So the question at the heart of the James Reilly affair is a very simple one. Was Minister Reilly’s decision to amend the list prepared by Róisín Shortall corrupt, and if so why are the Taoiseach and Tánaiste supporting him?

When Fine Gael and Labour formed a Government in 2011 they made a contract with the electorate. The Statement of Common Purpose at the start of the Programme for Government promised an end to “the old politics that created the crisis”. It committed the Government to “honouring the trust” that was placed in them by an electorate hungry for change. The statement said that the “Government [would be] guided by the needs of the many rather than the greed of the few.”

The James Reilly affair is not just about two primary care centres, nor is it just about fidelity to the health policy commitments in the Programme for Government. It is a litmus test of the Government’s promise to break from the corruption and dishonesty of Fianna Fail.

If Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore try to brush the James Reilly affair under the carpet then they will have broken the central promise of their administration. They will have abused the trust placed in them by the electorate.

They will be saying loud and clear: not only are we implementing the failed social and economic policies of Fianna Fail, but we are doing it in the same shabby, dirty and dishonest style of our predecessors.

There are some who argue that the James Reilly affair is a distraction from bigger and more pressing matters bearing down on government and citizens. There are others who see it as an important but relatively small part of the Programme for Government.

Both of these assessments miss the point, which is whether there is still a place for corrupt decision-making at the heart of Government. If Kenny and Gilmore refuse to address the real issue it will mark a turning point for this Fine Gael-Labour coalition.

Minister Reilly must make a comprehensive statement to the Dáil outlining the rationale for his additions to the primary care centre priority list. He must also release all documentation on the matter for full public scrutiny. If, having done both of these things, his explanations do not add up then he must resign.

Anything short of this will compromise the legitimacy not only of this Government but politics in general.

In February 2011 the electorate spoke clearly. They told all political parties that they wanted an end to corruption and dishonesty. Fianna Fáil’s electoral drubbing was nothing short of a popular rejection of how politics used to be done in this state.

The choice facing Kenny and Gilmore is not between James Reilly and Róisín Shortall. Nor is it between different interpretations of how best to reform our crisis-ridden health service. Rather it is a choice between defending the Minister for Health and defending the public interest; a choice between government stability and public confidence in the political process.

The Taoiseach and Tánaiste should think long and hard before making their choice, as it is one decision that will have long-lasting implications for their government and their respective political parties.