The Green Party has come under fire from opposition parties in the South for “an extraordinary abdication of responsibility” following its continued backing of Bertie Ahern despite a mounting corruption scandal.
The Greens, Ahern’s junior coalition partners, ensured a motion of no confidence in the Taoiseach failed to remove Ahern as Taoiseach last week.
The vote in the reconvened Dail parliament in Dublin was the first such challenge to a sitting Taoiseach in over 13 years and followed tortured and unconvincing testimony to the Mahon tribunal of inquiry investigating Ahern’s role in the ‘payments to politicians’ scandal.
Last week, an opinion poll has revealed that only one-third of the public believe evidence given on oath by the Taoiseach at the tribunal.
Despite having a theoretical majority of 13, Ahern survived the confidence vote by a margin of just five, while a single vote averted defeat on the controversial issue of Aer Lingus’s move of services from Shannon Airport to Belfast. A failure by some Fianna Fail members to appear for the vote surprised commentators and threatened a major setback for the new coalition government
In a hard-hitting statement, new Labour leader Eamon Gilmore said recent events had raised the spectre of disgraced former Taoiseach Charles Haughey’s notorious “GUBU” period in the early 1980s.
There had been “a significant shift in our political culture,” Gilmore said.
“From 1989, when Fianna Fail first dropped its ‘core value’ opposition to coalition, the junior partner in government has always acted as a guarantor of good conduct on the part of the government. The Labour Party did it with Fianna Fail in 1994. The Progressive Democrats did it at various times, especially in the earlier days of the party.
“The Green Party is the first party to go into coalition and to say that they will accept no responsibility for anything that the Government and its members do, and that they will take no steps to demand acceptable minimum standards from Fianna Fail.
“The ‘nothing to do with us’ approach marks an extraordinary abdication of responsibility on the part of a party that was particularly vocal in putting the case for high standards by office holders when it was in opposition,” he said.
But Ahern rejected the accusations that he had lost the moral authority to lead the government. “As long as they stay in opposition and I continue doing my job, I’m quite happy,” he said.
However, open discussion by Fianna Fail figures of a possible future handover of power from Ahern to Minister for Finance Brian Cowen has continued this week.
Speaking in the Dail, Sinn Fein’s Caoimhghin O Caolain attacked the “disastrous policies” pursued by Ahern’s government since 1997.
“They have squandered the unprecedented prosperity of the Irish economy. They have failed to build a fairer society. They have managed our public services disastrously and pursued privatisation policies that have undermined those services.
“No previous Governments had such opportunities, such resources, such capacity to plan for the future, such wealth to distribute fairly. But Fianna Fail and the PDs under this Taoiseach have failed miserably to use those huge advantages in the public interest.
“The Taoiseach and his Fianna Fail colleagues have hidden behind Health Minister Mary Harney and the PDs in an effort to shirk their responsibility for the gross inequality and inefficiency of our health services.
“As we speak hospitals are being forced to cut back services because of budgetary diktats from the HSE. Minister Harney and Professor Drumm tell us that patients will not be affected by these cuts. What planet are they living on?”
Mr O Caolain said the Taoiseach’s testimony at the Mahon Tribunal had “raised far more questions than it has answered.
“It has exposed contradictions and undermined the Taoiseach’s credibility. The focus of Government is being taken away from serious issues. Instead of doing their jobs, minister after minister is coming out to defend the Taoiseach.
“I have never seen a government as badly prepared for the return of the Dail as this one. This is deeply worrying given the serious challenges facing the economy and our public services.”
“For these reasons we can have no confidence in this Taoiseach and this Government.”