The Price of Power: Inside Ireland’s Crisis Coalition, by Pat Leahy (Penguin Ireland, €17.99 / £14.99; ebook €9.99)
Political journalists love coalition governments. The leaks multiply as the partners bend under the strain of trying to keep pre-election promises, often contradictory. The Political Editor of the Sunday Business Post, who has already written a book on the inside story of the previous Fianna Fáil-Green coalition, now tackles its Fine Gael-Labour replacement and how Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore are trying to govern a country saddled with crippling debt.
Leahy takes us over the political events of the past three years beginning with the failed revolt against Enda Kenny, the collapse of Brian Cowen’s government, the election campaign, the haggling over the new coalition programme and the anguish of the allocation of ministries. But he also wants to give the reader an insider’s view of this tumultuous period based on over 100 interviews with unnamed ministers, political advisers, TDs and other political fauna. Anonymity was the price for the inside story which Leahy tells very well, while knowing that it cannot be the whole story.
Some things jump out such as the casual manner in which Gilmore as Minister for Foreign Affairs got Cabinet approval for the closing of the Irish Embassy to the Vatican, one of the first the new Free State opened back in 1929.
It was Alan Shatter, Minister for Justice and Defence, who spotted the closure embedded in a list of ambassadorial appointments which Gilmore was having waved through. “Hey, maybe I’m not the person to raise this but are we really closing the Irish embassy in the Vatican?” he asked. His Catholic colleagues had missed this item or had ignored it, but at that stage it was too late. The Taoiseach’s staff had been informed in advance but did not react as it was presented as a cost-cutting measure. It seems amazing that there was no proper Government discussion before the decision.
On Kenny’s Dáil speech denouncing the Vatican’s handling of child abuse, the author says that “some senior civil servants advised against delivering the speech in such uncompromising terms, but his own political staff knew to leave well enough alone”. Some of the assertions made in the speech about the behaviour of the Vatican were “later shown to be questionable – a matter that received little attention,” the author acidly comments.
Enda Kenny had a baptism of fire when hours after being voted Taoiseach he found himself in Brussels at a European Summit and summoned to the office of the European Council President, Herman Van Rompuy. Suddenly the door opened. “The Taoiseach looked up to see Merkel and Sarkozy walk into the room Sarkozy [then President of France] was without a jacket. Neither sat down. Kenny immediately realised, ‘It’s an ambush: they’re here to browbeat me into it’.”
He later told aides that he was subjected to “fierce pressure” to give way on the controversial 12% corporation tax. The carrot was a reduction on the interest rate on Ireland’s bailout loans. But Kenny rightly reckoned that to yield on the tax at his first EU summit would go down badly at home and held his nerve.
The author reveals details of the Irish emergency plan to be used if the Eurozone breaks up as seemed likely at one stage a year ago. Banks will be closed temporarily, exchange controls will be brought in, access to cash would be limited, a new currency would be introduced but the existing euro notes would have to be used for a while at a floating exchange rate. The Government would rush through an Emergency Powers Act to get wartime powers to control, banking, commerce and public order. It does not sound pretty.
On the passage of the abortion legislation, there is not much the book adds to what is already public knowledge. Leahy is still puzzled why Lucinda Creighton thought she had any hope to get the suicide clause dropped and describes how she tried to push through amendments right up to the last moment.
After a conversation with the Taoiseach on the way to an EU meeting last December “she thought Kenny had no intention of legislating for abortion in the case of threatened suicide. So she was horrified when the legislation was announced the following week. ‘Gilmore’s got what he wanted,’ she thought. She was right.”
As she tried to persuade Kenny to change the suicide clause, Creighton got a text from a Cabinet minister: “You’re wasting your time with these amendments. The deal is done.”
The book ends describing how the “constant war” between Gilmore and his deputy leader, Joan Burton, is being fought semi-publicly as she positions herself to replace him in some future crisis. That will need another ‘inside story’.