Belfast Telegraph

Why the resignation of Frances Fitzgerald just wouldn't happen here

The Tanaiste stepped down, but ministers at Stormont took no responsibility for their actions while in office, says Tom Kelly

Well, it only took a week and a bit for Ireland to avoid what would have been a catastrophic and unnecessary general election.

Frances Fitzgerald, late of the Dail parish, finally succumbed to the honourable tradition of ministers taking responsibility for their actions and resigning.

It's a very neglected practice these days. In Northern Ireland its almost unheard of. You could run through Stormont buck naked or hang your drawers over the statue of Craig and the most you could expect is a slap on the wrist - that is if you bothered to show up for the admonishment.

But back to the doughty Mrs Fitzgerald. Over the past two years the Republic's Department of Justice has brought administrative incompetence to a new low.

It has been responsible or partially responsible for the resignations of a Taoiseach, two Garda Commissioners, a Justice Minister, a permanent secretary and now a Tanaiste. Quite an achievement of calamities.

Of course, ministerial incompetence is never a reason for resignation.

Just look at the rainbow trio of buffoons managing Brexit in the UK.

Mrs Fitzgerald's crime wasn't incompetence. It was a simple act of forgetfulness - so she says.

In the overall scheme of things it seems to outside observers a trivial issue over which to resign. There is considerable sympathy for Mrs Fitzgerald, who is a decent old spud of impeccable blueshirt stock. Even Fianna Fail seemed reluctant to club this particular cub.

Fianna Fail backbenchers have always been uneasy about propping up a Fine Gael government - particularly one led by Leo Varadkar.

It's in the Fianna Fail DNA to loathe Fine Gael, even though a tissue paper wouldn't separate them in government.

Sinn Fein - in an attempt to outmanoeuvre Fianna Fail as the main Opposition voice in the Dail - tabled a no confidence motion.

Once that happened the fate of Mrs Fitzgerald was sealed.

Fianna Fail, under the canny leadership of Micheal Martin, has been both ruthless and meticulous in arresting Sinn Fein's growth in the Republic.

Martin knew that, although he would have preferred a rattle at Fine Gael on a different and more serious issue, he would have to table his own motion of no confidence in the minister.

And once that happened, the whole government edifice faced collapse.

Leo immediately stated his full confidence in his minister. That's always a bad sign, as any football manager will tell you. When chairmen are expressing their full confidence it usually means that the search is already under way for a replacement. Just ask former England manager Sam Allardyce.

What happened next was a classic case of machismo and hegemonic masculinity between Varadkar and Martin.

Poor old Fitzgerald was collateral damage from there on.

It's highly likely that when Varadkar was being publicly fulsome in his support for his beleaguered and unfortunate colleague, he was also secretly clearing out his sock drawer hoping that Frances would do the decent thing and resign.

Whilst the Taoiseach is not short of self-belief, it's probable that the prospect of being Ireland's shortest reigning Prime Minister was not a record he wanted to hold.

But he couldn't be seen to be caving into Micheal Martin's demands too soon.

The bad blood between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail has not dimmed despite good bonhomie between some individuals.

The Tanaiste's head this week could certainly be followed up with demands for the head of Charlie Flanagan, the current Justice Minister, next week. Fianna Fail could become insatiable. It was all high stakes.

What Varadkar hadn't countenanced on was Minister Fitzgerald's own resilience.

The irony that neither Fine Gael nor Fianna Fail wanted nor needed a general election was not lost on anyone.

To display recklessness in the face of Brexit would be the ultimate act of self-harm for both parties.

But who would blink first - Martin or Varadkar?

The experience of Martin shone through.

The hooligans on the Fianna Fail back-benches may have been 'yo-hoing' in the Dail bar, but Martin needed a blood-letting, not the bloodbath of a general election.

This was a test of brinkmanship, and to paraphrase the late Senator Lloyd Bentsen: "Leo ain't no John Kennedy."

By that stage Mrs Fitzgerald faced up to the inevitable and to the fears of her own party colleagues who know that Fianna Fail support in the polls is always underestimated.

Fitzgerald says that she alone took the decision to resign and that it was done in the interests of the country.

Very principled indeed, but she has also had the benefit of losing the 2002 and 2007 general elections and therefore knows just how fickle the Republic's electorate can be.

The Northern Ireland electorate is much more forgiving - Sinn Fein, the SDLP, UUP, Alliance and DUP have all had some appalling ministers.

They have even witnessed the unusual practice of ministers in the same Executive taking each other to court.

Ministers have fallen short of their own ministerial codes and have been publicly criticised by independent bodies from the Equality Commission to the Appointments Commissioner to the toothless Assembly Commission.

They have overseen failed projects and reckless initiatives, but there hasn't been a single resignation.

It's proof, if proof is needed, that politicians here are not judged by performance or competence, but by fealty to their tribes and their opposition to the other side.

It would be a radical departure for Northern Ireland to engage in some normal politics that would involve some modicum of regard for the public office to which they have been chosen. But I wouldn't hold my breath.

Tom Kelly is a political commentator

Belfast Telegraph

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