Dublin government on the brink

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The Independent Online
The Northern Ireland peace process will undergo its most severe test over the next two days, as the Irish coalition government faces disintegration.

The two-year-old coalition is led by Albert Reynolds, the Taoiseach and one of the peace process's driving forces. The junior partner, the Labour Party, was close to pulling out last night after in effect accusing Mr Reynolds of giving his Attorney General a High Court post to make him immune from questioning over an extradition scandal.

Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness said yesterday he was concerned that a change of government in Dublin ``could have a destablising effect on the peace process''. Sinn Fein fears Irish opposition parties, including the centre-right Fine Gael, the new-right Progressive Deomcrats and the anti-republican Democratic Left, would be less accommodating in any future dialogue than Mr Reynolds' Fianna Fail party.

The Dublin government crisis followed revelations that the office of the former attorney general, Harry Whelehan, had failed for seven months to process an application to have a paedophile priest, Brendan Smyth, extradited to Northern Ireland for trial. Smyth is also being investigated by Irish authorities over alleged sex assaults against children in the Republic.

Dick Spring, the Labour leader and Foreign Minister, said: ``At the end of the day, we allowed a child-abuser to remain at large in our community, when we had it in our power to ensure he was given up to justice. Is no one to explain why? Is no one to account to the people of this country for so grievous a lapse.''

The coalition's future will be decided tomorrow when Mr Reynolds answers questions on the extradition failure in the Dail. Yesterday, Labour MPs gave Mr Spring, full authority to decide whether to quit the government if Mr Reynolds' explanation is not satisfactory.

On Friday, against fierce opposition from Labour MPs, Mr Reynolds insisted on appointing Mr Whelehan President of the Dublin High Court.

Before Friday's cabinet meeting Mr Spring had written to Mr Reynolds stating that unless Mr Whelehan, personally or through the Taoiseach in the Dail, gave a satisfactory explanation of the handling of the Smyth case, the Labour leader could not approve the his appointment.

Mr Spring said he had no idea why Mr Reynolds had risked his government and its role in the peace process by promoting Mr Whelehan. Last month, Labour backbenchers had called for Mr Whelehan to resign as Attorney General over the Smyth affair.

Mr Spring said last night the listing of the High Court appointment on the agenda for last Friday's cabinet meeting, alongside the publication of Mr Whelehan's explanation to ministers of the Smyth affair, made it ``immediately apparent'' to him that Mr Reynolds was acting to ``render the Attorney effectively immune from any questioning in the public domain''.

Labour ministers were furious at Mr Whelehan's explanation, which was that Smyth was unlikely to commit further offences while free in the Republic, despite his failure to respond to treatment in the past.

They walked out of the cabinet before the Whelehan appointment was voted on. Mr Spring said Labour's six ministers would not attend any cabinet meeting called before tomorrow's questions in the Dail.

Mr Reynolds appealed to Labour to stay in government, reminding them the coalition was engaged in securing a lasting peace in Northern Ireland.

He stressed his personal respect for Mr Spring as ``a man of principle'' and regretted that his appointment of Mr Whelehan had been seen as a breach of trust by his coalition partners.

The Labour Health Minister, Brendan Howlin, reflected the pessimism among Labour ministers about the future of the coalition, saying: ``There are the most serious doubts about the continuation of the current government.''

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