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July 5, 2016, 9:29 a.m.
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Remember Joe the Plumber, the Republican supporter who heckled Barack Obama, during the 2008 presidential campaign?
He was championed by Republican candidate John McCain and used as a smashing ball against the Democratic campaign.
Well, we have our own equivalent here. Problem here is that this Joe the Plumber hasn’t been taken on by the Opposition but by the Government.
Joe O’Toole is chairman of the Expert Commission on water funding. In a series of public interviews over the past two days, he has taken what was a dripping trap and ratcheted it up into a full-scale flood.
O’Toole has had a long and distinguished political career and had built up a reputation based on his outspoken nature, his passion and strongly held views.
As such, he was very much a pugilist.
Problem is when your status changes and you are asked to become a referee. At the very least, it might be wise to hold your punches, even if you hold certain views. That will give some latitude in trying to approach the issue with an open mind.
O’Toole’s problem is this: In a series of media interviews since Newstalk Breakfast last Thursday, he has essentially made himself into a hostage of fortune.
Speaking of the task that lay ahead for the commission, there was a clear inference that some form of charge would be necessary. More potentially damaging was his explanation of the commission’s purpose.
“It is a political exercise, it is a democratic exercise. The reality is we’re trying to resolve a problem which has emerged from the democratic process,” he said.
“People voted a certain way, Leinster House is not prepared to grasp that particular nettle, so we have to find a solution that will have enough sugar on it to make the medicine go down easily.”
O’Toole has repeated his support for water charges and the polluter pays principle. It has led to a barrage of calls for his resignation from all Opposition parties. He has been accused of pre-empting the outcome before the process even starts.
In an interview with Sarah Bardon, O’Toole criticises those who called for his resignation. He insisted he would approach the issue with an open mind: “I look forward to learning more about this issue and as ever when the facts change I will change.”
On one level O’Toole’s honesty is admirable. But he is facing into a perception problem that might be insuperable.
The commission will be asked to make a decision on whether or not domestic charges should be applied. If it does, its chair will be accused of not being fully independent in his approach.
This is a real political problem for Simon Coveney. When the commission reports back in November, will that be the cue for another major political crisisover water?
A sense of low-level crisis is hanging over the Dáil like a cumulus cloud. Maybe it’s the after-effects of Brexit, but even yesterday’s positive Exchequer figures have failed to temper that feeling that it might be 2008 and 2009 all over again.
What the Government did not need was a handful of other embarrassments hanging over it. For one, there is the scandal of Console, which is getting worse by the day.
Now, on top of that, another controversy over very generous non-disclosed executive pay has cropped up. Again it affects a Section 38 agency, this time the St John of God group.
A total of over €1.6 million was paid to 14 executives in 2013. That payment was not disclosed to the HSE - apparently on “professional advice”.
Minister for Health Simon Harris said he was disappointed there were efforts to conceal payments from the HSE. Here is Paul Cullen’s report.The optics are bad. It’s a reminder of the controversies from three years ago surrounding executive pay and conditions at the Central Remedial Clinic and Rehab.
It is a reminder too that the Government has not come to grips with this issue. Coming hot on the heels of the Console scandal (here’s the latest), it has not been a good weekend for the Government in terms of its handling of governance in the charitable and so-called voluntary sectors.
If that is not enough, Mick Wallace’s Private Members’ Bill on abortion has split the Cabinet with the Independent Alliance members insisting on a free vote.
Enda Kenny was very adamant about collective Cabinet responsibility at last week’s meeting of Ministers, delivering a 40-minute lecture on the same topic.
There are only two possible outcomes to this. One is the Government breaks up. The second is an embarrassing climbdown from one side or the other.
Shane Ross seemed defiant yesterday, even to the point of disagreeing with the Attorney General’s advice that the Private Members’ Bill was unconstitutional.
This report from Sarah Bardon indicates Fine Gael might be the ones to relent.
This has the potential to bring this fragile coalition to its knees before it has even started to walk. They have until Thursday to sort out this crisis .