A FASCINATING new development in Mayo politics is the extent to which Fine Gael elected representatives become offended when members of Sinn Féin utter words of criticism over the government’s policy of cutbacks.
And it would appear Hollymount Councillor Patsy O’Brien, the party’s biggest vote gatherer in the 2009 local elections with 2,760 first preferences, holds the role of chief avenger.
It all started at a meeting of Mayo Vocational Education Committee before Christmas when Castlebar Sinn Féin Councillor Thérése Ruane described as ‘catastrophic’ the imminent loss of 12 teaching posts as a result of budgetary cuts.
She said it was another slap in the face for education, claiming the marginalised and the weak were being targeted by ‘a heartless government’.
This prompted Councillor O’Brien to launch his counter-offensive, accusing Sinn Féin of being hypocrites for attacking cutbacks in the Republic of Ireland but implementing them in Northern Ireland.
The hypocritical angle resurfaced at the budget meeting of Mayo County Council when one of Councillor Ruane’s party colleagues, Councillor Gerry Murray, lambasted Fine Gael, the party holding a majority of seats on the authority, of supporting capitalism to the detriment of the ordinary citizens of Ireland.
He claimed the party was happy to allow taxpayers to take the hit for the failings of major financial institutions and their big bondholders, whom he compared to ‘Cheshire cats’.
When he had finished his three-minute onslaught, none other than the aforementioned Councillor O’Brien attempted to expose Sinn Féin for reading for a different hymn sheet in the Republic of Ireland than they do in Northern Ireland.
He argued Sinn Fein supported the cutting of €2.3 billion from the health budget in Northern Ireland while also subscribing to crippling household charges on residents there.
Councillor Murray was having none of it, of course.
And while he did not have a chance to respond to Councillor O’Brien due to the meeting being adjourned to allow political tempers to recede, he took the time to issue a statement to the local media the following day.
In it, he explained the budget for the six counties is determined exclusively by the British Government and not by the Northern Ireland Assembly.
He insisted the assembly merely distributes the funding to the various departments, but any shortfalls cannot be bridged ‘due to the fact that no fiscal powers have been transferred from Westminster to the Northern Assembly’.
Councillor Murray continued: “The assembly is in essence a glorified form of local government. For Fine Gael to state that it has fiscal and sovereign powers is a lie.”
He further argued the recent attacks on Sinn Féin by Fine Gael were ‘a pathetic attempt to justify the Fianna Fáil programme of austerity and cuts that Fine Gael are now only to happy to implement in order to bail out the bondholders and toxic banks’.
But Councillor O’Brien is far from convinced and he has no intention of backing down, particularly now that Sinn Féin is being tipped to take a Dáil seat in Mayo at Fine Gael’s expense in the next general election.
Councillor O’Brien intends to be one of his party candidates when that campaign comes around and, on current form, he won’t be lacking in fighting spirit. There has clearly been a shift in power in his favour.