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Minister's debt blunder puts him on the critical list

JAMES Reilly's late-night statement to the Dail about his financial affairs contained 1,740 words. Amazingly enough, 'sorry' was not one of them. The Minister for Health clearly believes that his outing as a debt defaulter is no big deal and everybody should just get off his back.

Unfortunately for Reilly, many of his government colleagues don't see it that way. They have privately concluded that Dr Debt is damaged goods, for the simple reason that he has lousier political judgement than anyone else around the cabinet table.

Reilly's defence could be summarised as, "I am such a busy and wealthy man, I can't be expected to keep track of all my business interests."



Investment

He claims that he has been trying to resolve the €1.9m debt that he and four other individuals clocked up from their ill-advised investment in a Tipperary nursing home, but cannot sort out the complicated litigation issues on his own. He also points out that he cleared his actions with the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) and denies there is any conflict of interest because he actually wants to take more elderly people out of residential care.

Whether he knows it or not, Reilly is missing the point here. Nobody has accused him of being corrupt or breaking any rules. His real offence is that he should have nipped this problem in the bud long before it blew up into a political controversy -- and the Minister's handling of his own debts does not exactly augur well for his ability to control the spiralling health budget deficit.

Reilly's argument that he gave attorney to his solicitor when he entered the cabinet last year does not stand up to scrutiny.

He was first appointed as Fine Gael's health spokesman back in 2007 and must have known he was a dead cert to become the minister shortly afterwards.

That gave him plenty of time to get rid of any business interests that might later interfere with his political activities -- and he was incredibly naive not to realise that the Tipperary nursing home was a time-bomb just waiting to explode.

Reilly refused to take questions after his late- night Dail statement, which does not inspire much confidence either. He either cannot or will not reveal when he intends to comply with a High Court order to repay that €1.9m debt. He is also the first cabinet minister to see his name in Stubbs Gazette, a permanent stain on his record. On the thorny issue of nursing home care, every move he makes from now on will be closely scrutinised to see if it might have any effect on his own financial status.

Today, Reilly also faces awkward questions about another item in his extensive property portfolio. He has been revealed as part of a consortium that bid to build a 10,000sqm health centre in his own north Dublin constituency, estimated to cost almost €15m.

Now the plans are stalled -- but he must still explain whether or not he owes money on the project.



Dilemma

Reilly's dilemma is that many of his cabinet colleagues just don't have faith in him any more. His bullish attitude has already made him highly unpopular with some Labour ministers, while even senior members of his own party have lost faith in him.

He still has one big friend in the Taoiseach, whose job he helped to save during the bitter Fine Gael leadership contest in 2010 -- but even Enda must realise that he cannot protect his hairy deputy forever.

Dr Reilly's political career is now on the critical list. His chances of making a full recovery look pretty remote.