Mary Coughlan: still very much liked

MARY Coughlan's predicament at the moment calls to mind John Donnellan's scathing assessment of then Fine Gael leader Alan Dukes that if it were raining soup, he would out holding a fork.

Last week was an awful one for the Tánaiste and the knock-on effect was that after a relatively decent September, the government was once again on the back foot.

Leaving aside the largely inconsequential slips of the tongue, Coughlan landed herself in controversy on Wednesday over her comment that there were many aspects of the report of An Bord Snip Nua that did not "make sense". And then by the end of the week she found herself dragged into the political quicksand that is Fás.

The sense of despair among Fianna Fáil deputies was palpable. "We'd a good run in the last couple of weeks. We won the debate on Nama. Lisbon is going well-ish and now, after last week, we're back to square one," said one despondent TD.

The gaffe over An Bord Snip Nua, while totally avoidable and embarrassing for the government, would probably have proved a one- or two-day wonder. Finance minister Brian Lenihan's comment that it "didn't make much difference because all of the departments have been consulted" mightn't have done too many favours to Coughlan but it was the right message in terms of limiting the fall-out from the story.

But the controversy over Rody Molloy's €1m golden handshake has the potential to be a lot more damaging. "I'm getting an awful reaction to it on the ground," one minister said this weekend.

Just how culpable the Tánaiste is for the decision is a source of contention. The reality is the government wanted Molloy out as quickly as possible. Molloy was not going to walk away from the job without some concession being made and efforts to force him to do so would have left Fás and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment open to potential legal action.

But where the mistake was made was in failing to seek legal advice on the issue, possibly from the office of attorney general. Inevitably, the legal advice would have confirmed the department's hands were effectively tied but it would have provided the government with the cover it so patently does not now have.

"This comes down to a judgement call [on the part of the Tánaiste]. It may well have been that the legal advice would have confirmed what they believed to be the case but at least we'd be covered. It's the optics and this game is often about optics," said one Fianna Fáil figure.

Sources close to Coughlan say following comments from Fás director Niall Saul to the effect that information about overspending and breaches of procedure were deliberately kept from the board of Fás, there is a possibility of the government seeking to claw back the top-up secured by Molloy and that the advice of the AG was being sought on that matter. "We didn't have that information last November," one source said.

But inevitably the opposition will say that this is a case of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. It is likely to be a long drawn-out process that won't do anything to ease the pressure on the Tánaiste in the short term.

That pressure is certainly not coming from the Taoiseach Brian Cowen, who has a high personal regard for Coughlan and who prides himself on his loyalty to colleagues. Across the parliamentary party, Coughlan is still very much liked and there is considerable sympathy over how "every little thing she does is blown up". "The mob is in full flight and it's not a pretty sight," said one senior government figure.

However, sympathy notwithstanding, there is a view that Coughlan has been "over promoted" and is left looking exposed when she fills in for Brian Cowen in the Dáil. "I hate saying it because I like her but a lot of them [Fianna Fáil TDs] have written her off," one deputy told the Sunday Tribune.

"She is an incredibly hard worker and is putting in very long hours. She is also having to keep a lot of balls in the air and that's part of the problem. Maybe one of the two positions she is holding would have been enough," the deputy said.


Although the opposition has called for her resignation in the wake of the revelations about Molloy's golden handshake and, perhaps predictably, Green senator Dan Boyle has said the Tánaiste has questions to answer, her position looks pretty secure.

There may or may not be a reshuffle of the cabinet next year but, given Cowen's unwavering support, nobody believes there will be a new Tánaiste if a move of department is possible, particularly as a new souped-up Department of Enterprise, possibly including energy, is being mooted. This leaves open the option of Coughlan becoming an old-style minister for labour, with perhaps Eamon Ryan shifting to Enterprise and Energy.

But before then there is the not-so-small matter of the budget to be dealt with and, given the level of cutbacks coming down the track, that will inevitably result in the spotlight shifting away from Coughlan.

If public-sector pay and social-welfare rates are, as expected, cut across the board, Mary Coughlan will be the least of the government's problems. Not that that will be much consolation to Fianna Fáil TDs.