Joan Burton faces no confidence motion over David Begg appointment to Pensions Authority
By Fiachra Ó Cionnaith, Elaine Loughlin and Conor Kane
Update 6pm:Tánaiste Joan Burton will face a pre-election Dáil no confidence motion next week after the David Begg political appointment affair continued to embroil her in controversy.
The Independent Alliance tabled the motion tonight, saying the Labour leader's decision to give the ex-trade unionist a lucrative State job is a return to Celtic Tiger "cronyism" and an insult to people living in poverty.
On Wednesday, cabinet rubber-stamped the appointment of Mr Begg as the new national Pensions Authority chair for the next five years, a role that includes a €100,000-plus total pay packet over a five-year period.
The decision was made after Ms Burton - who described Mr Begg as a "hard-working servant of the Labour movement" on his retirement as Irish Congress of Trade Unions secretary general last March - put his name forward without referring to the transparent public appointments process.
The Tánaiste's spokesperson has defended the decision as the public appointments system is allowed to be "flexible" when a person is put forward who is considered to be clearly able to do the job.
However, despite the claim and the ongoing support of Fine Gael and Labour cabinet members, the Opposition has increasingly labelled the appointment as "cronyism" - with Ms Burton now set to be forced to defend herself from the criticism in the Dáil next week.
In a no confidence motion tabled by Independent Alliance TDs Shane Ross, Finian McGrath, John Halligan, Michael Fitzmaurice and Tom Fleming and due to be heard in the Dáil next Tuesday and Wednesday, the opposition group will say TDs have "no confidence in the Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection".
Speaking to the Irish Examiner tonight, Mr McGrath and Mr Halligan said the alleged "cronyism" appointment jars considerably with the fact that one in 10 children are still going to school hungry and that the number of people living in consistent poverty has double to 11.7% in five years and that this is the reason for why it has been raised.
The TDs, who rejected suggestions the move is also to do with giving the Independent Alliance much needed attention before the election, added that the coalition's 2011 election promises to end political cronyism now lies in tatters.
News of the motion came as Mr Begg told RTE Radio he has "no problem" declining the position despite insisting he will not "bend and crack" at the first sign of criticism.
However, senior Government ministers Leo Varadkar, Paschal Donohue and Brendan Howlin continued to row in behind Ms Burton yesterday, saying she did nothing wrong and that the coalition has not resorted to pre-election political cronyism.
Mr Howlin said Mr Begg is "highly regarded by every politician", before adding: "Well maybe not one or two you could mention."
The closely linked Labour trade unionist who was appointed by the party's leader to a lucrative State board job weeks before the election is called has said he will step down if people believe he was unfairly given the role.
Former Irish Congress of Trade Unions secretary general David Begg said he has "no problem" declining the position despite Fine Gael rowing in behind Labour yesterday to insist the appointment is not a return to political "cronyism".
Speaking on RTE radio today, Mr Begg said while he won't "bend and crack" at the first sign of criticism, he never sought the role, would not have applied for it if it was his own choice and will turn down the offer if the concern continues.
"If this job (were) advertised I wouldn't have applied for it personally. I was very honoured and flattered she [Ms Burton] asked me to do the job, but I wouldn't have volunteered for it," he said.
"I have no problem if they want to re-think the situation, I won't stand in the way on that," he said, adding four more times that he "doesn't need" the stress of the situation and "will not force my way" if an Oireachtas committee which needs to rubber-stamp the appointment raises further questions.
Mr Begg's comments came after he told the Irish Examiner the pension authority chair money is "not a crock of gold" and that he is considering running as an Independent senator after the election, indicating a separate preference for his future role to what has previously been outlined.
However, despite the remarks, speaking at separate events today, Fine Gael ministers Leo Varadkar and Paschal Donohue both staunchly defended Ms Burton's decision to appoint Mr Begg to the position - insisting she has done nothing wrong and that the move is not a return to pre-election political cronyism.
Speaking to reporters at the launch of the Irish Cancer Society's Daffodil Day fundraiser event on March 11, Health Minister Leo Varadkar denied anything untoward had taken place.
"I don't think it's cronyism, it was a Government decision that went through Cabinet and we all approved of it," he said.
"My experience of David Begg was very much his involvement in helping to resolve the issues around pensions in the airport and with Aer Lingus, and he was really helpful in sorting that issue out and securing people's pensions.
"So from my own experience of him he's somebody who's very well qualified for the job. I don't see anyone offering to do the job who's any more qualified than him."
At a separate launch of the new fleet of buses for the country, Transport Minister Paschal Donohue also backed the decision to appoint Mr Begg without going through normal protocol - adding the exemption allowing a minister to override the public appointments process is "important" and should be retained.
“I believe that clause is important because I believe that a Minister does have the ability to appoint people into the chair or important State organisations if they believe that person has the expertise and the background to be able to do that job very well.
“That part of the legislation went through the Oireachtas in a very transparent manner and it has made a fundamental and very positive change to appointments of state boards since it came in.
“As minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport I have a very large variety of State organisations to which I have to appoint people to the boards and since this new process came in we have a fare greater variety of candidate applying for the role and far great set of experiences being made available to the boards of State organisations.
“Alongside that it is important at some times for the chair of State boards, the minister of the day has the ability to appoint somebody if they believe that person has particular skills that are very relevant to that role," he said, before adding he has not made use of the clause since he entered cabinet.
The same position was taken by Ms Burton's Labour colleague, Public Expenditure and Reform Minister Brendan Howlin, who rejected claims that "cronyism" was to thank for the appointment of Mr Begg.
"Where a minister determines that there is a unique set of characteristics available to somebody that might not have applied in the normal course of events, they can reach out to that person,” Mr Howlin told reporters at an event in Wexford.
"I absolutely reject the charge of cronyism because David Begg is not a member of the Labour party, to my knowledge has never been, but he is somebody who is regarded highly by every politician.
"Well maybe not by one or two that you could mention, but by the vast majority of politicians for his work in the trade union movement over the last 30 years."
Sinn Féin deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald described the appointment on Thursday as “a timely reminder to voters that political cronyism is alive and kicking in the Labour Party”, while Fianna Fáil jobs spokesperson Dara Calleary was equally critical of the decision at the time.
However, asked if the appointment looked bad in the run-up to a general election, given the historic ties between Labour and the trade union movement, Mr Howlin said: "Well I think the trade union movement is important to be represented.
"Pensions are a critical issue, the Tánaiste made a judgement that she wanted that particular skill set represented on this board and I think there’s a very compelling reason for it."