Dublin Political Theater

November 19, 1994

The theatrical political crisis in Dublin may slightly delay but will not upset the peace process in Northern Ireland, which all major parties in the Irish Republic favor. It does illustrate why Ulster Unionists reject the Republic, but its backlash may budge the Republic toward accommodating them.

Since the 1992 election, Ireland has been governed by an uneasy coalition of the traditionalist Fianna Fail and secular-minded Labor parties. It was put together by Albert Reynolds, a canny old Fianna Fail leader, and Dick Spring, an ambitious young Labor leader. The two will go down in Irish history for the December 1993 Downing Street declaration's commitment to reconciliation.

Now Mr. Spring has brought down the government of which he was deputy prime minister. The issue was how much veto power a junior partner should have in a coalition government. The final straw was the appointment of the conservative Attorney General Harry Whelehan to be presiding judge of the second highest court. Mr. Spring warned that Labor would quit the government if Mr. Reynolds did that. He did, it did, Mr. Whelehan ascended the bench and the government fell.

The easiest resolution is for Fianna Fail to pick a new leader, probably Finance Minister Bertie Ahearn, to patch up the coalition. Fine Gael, loser of the 1992 election, wants Labor to join it in a rival coalition. If nothing works, a new election looms.

Mr. Whelehan was controversial for two actions symbolizing alleged church interference. One was his initiative in 1992 to prevent a 14-year-old rape victim from flying to England for an abortion, plunging the republic into constitutional crisis. The second, now revealed though moot, was seven months inaction on an extradition warrant from Northern Ireland for Father Brendan Smyth to face charges of molesting children.

The implication was that civil Dublin could not turn a priest over to the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Father Smyth returned to the North voluntarily in June, pled guilty and was sentenced to four years in prison. The emotional affair overshadows the political crisis. Questions of whether Mr. Whelehan was honest, whether Mr. Reynolds was, whether any church figure interfered and why legal officials were conveniently unavailable, are not sorted out.

Judge Whelehan resigned promptly. That part of the business is over. Being treated as scandal, it is likely to leave the Irish Republic a more secular society.

Meanwhile, Dick Spring's power play, designed to make Dublin's Labor Party in the long run the alternative to Fianna Fail, has been set in motion.

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