It was the dog that didn’t bark who decided it at the end of the day.
A bit like the plot-line of the Hound of the Baskervilles, we were all listening to the wrong dogs barking up the wrong trees.
Over the past week, it was all Willie O’Dea putting on his own end-of-the-pier act. Roll-up! Roll-up! Watch the Minister for Defence in his all new rage and fury show. You think Gordon Brown’s four-hour holiday was self sacrifice? Witness an Irish Government minister who has defied human nature by not taking a holiday for a full two years. Marvel as he builds himself into such a tornado of outrage that he self-immolates before your very eyes.
And, politically, that’s more or less what happened.
As a colleague acidly put it on Thursday: “Willie went one Morning Ireland too far.”
We have not heard a peep out of Bertie Ahern since the controversy first erupted ten days ago. Actually for almost a week, it seemed that the entire Cabinet had become anchorites, with Government Buildings shrouded in a monastic silence.
That was, until Willie O’Dea arrived back from the first holiday he had taken for a full two years. And from there on in, we got a spectacular full-on Broadway production – a chorus line of 100 councillors and co-starring roles for half a dozen local TDs and two junior ministers. But there was only one star.
The Minister for Defence gave a bravura performance of defiance and bluster all week. So much so that you kind of suspected that he was beginning to believe in his own invincibility. He would force, erm, persuade Aer Lingus of the errors of its ways. He spoke of an Armageddon scenario, of the mid-west of Ireland being cut off from the rest of the world because of the loss of Heathrow. Seriously, cut off from the rest of the world.
In his only substantial comments on the controversy, Transport Minister Noel Dempsey said he agreed with Dermot Mannion that some of the claims being made about the downside of the Aer Lingus decision were exaggerated.
On Morning Ireland, Willie responded to that in this manner: “(Noel Dempsey) is taking his own advice. In this situation unfortunately that advice does not convey the seriousness of the situation here.”
That was a blooper if ever there was one. The comments served to undermine Dempsey and his authority. O’Dea had clearly overstepped the mark.
And still the dog didn’t bark. Bertie Ahern (still on holidays but apparently working away behind the scenes) said nothing.
But then on Thursday evening, a statement was issued in the name of Education Minister Mary Hanafin. In the second paragraph, it noted that she was “speaking on behalf of the Government”.
The key line came in the next paragraph: “As a listed plc, Aer Lingus has to take its own decisions. It is inappropriate for the Government to intervene in the decision-making of a private company.”
That was it. It was over. Bertie Ahern had not uttered one syllable in ten days. But the mark of the Anorak was all over the statement. O’Dea was now being put firmly in his place. Two of Ahern’s most senior loyalists, Mary Hanafin and Dermot Ahern, were wheeled out to repeat the Government line. Aer Lingus has made its decision and that decision is would stand.
It was the one act of decisiveness by a Government in a fortnight of mess and blunder. At least, Aer Lingus chief executive Dermot Mannion knew where he stood before meeting local politicians and business leaders and knew it wasn’t a case of the Government showing him the door, as it did with Willie Walsh.
The stance will be politically unpopular (and that’s as mild an assessment as possible). Ahern and Cabinet ministers will have a rough passage through meetings with its own representatives from the region.
But at the same time you have to also question Willie O’Dea’s judgement. Is he or isn’t he a member of the Cabinet and answerable to collective responsibility? As a Minister, he was party to the decision to privatise Aer Lingus and should be brave enough to live with the consequences (despite what he said this week, the airline did not need to be privatised to raise the funds for fleet replacement). And O’Dea has put local interest above national interest on every occasion – on the deregulation of taxis; on Barrington’s hospital and frequently on Shannon. Other ministers like Dempsey (with an incinerator in Meath) and Micheal Martin (over Cork Airport) have been prepared to take the heat that goes with being a Minister.
And the dog might not have barked this week. But boy, did it still have a fierce bite.
This is my column from today's Irish Examiner