The Dáil’s return tomorrow after an eight-week break begins what is set to be a defining period in Irish politics.
By Daniel McConnell
Leo Varadkar’s brittle minority government limps on, at the grace of the old enemy Fianna Fáil, aiming to bring in a fourth and final budget.
Unlike last year, whenMicheál Martin granted the12-month extension, there will be no fifth.
Certainly, when this sordid little arrangement was cobbled together by Enda Kenny in 2016 no one gave it hope of lasting this long. But lasted it has.
Varadkar’s elevation to become Taoiseach in 2017 brought with it a wave of initial optimism and popularity for Fine Gael.
His new Cabinet looked youthful and dynamic, compared to the dull, grey Fianna Fáil frontbench. Then the trouble started.
Largely thanks to Alan Kelly and the Irish Examiner’s Mick Clifford, Frances Fitzgerald and Charlie Flanagan’s mishandling of questions relating to Garda Maurice McCabe led to the tánaiste’s resignation in 2017. Had she not gone,the Government would have fallen. Since then a series of calamitous cock-ups have followed.
CervicalCheck; the debacle over the National Broadband Plan which led to the resignation of another minister Denis Naughten; the cost over-runs at the National Children’sHospital; and over 10,000 people falling into homelessness are among some of the issues which have dominated the domestic political agenda.
Then there is the significant damage done to Fine Gael’s economic credibility following repeated criticisms and concerns voiced by the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council about Paschal Donohoe’s loose budgetary policy.
As a result, poll ratings of above 35% a year ago have disappeared and the party is now pretty much neck and neck with Fianna Fáil.
Worse still for Varadkar, Micheál Martin after a successful local elections, has momentum.
So the occasion of the Dáil’s return is a significant one. Why? Simply put, its days are numbered.
As we are all aware, a general election is in the offing and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told a gathering of ministers at a private dinner on Monday that he believes that election will be in May.
The ministers were the Taoiseach’s guests at a dinner in Dublin Castle to mark the commencement of the Dáil term and to make clear he will not be pulling the plug before Christmas.
Varadkar’s desire to not hold an election before the end of the year has one very important dimension to it.
It means he is content to contest four by-elections, caused by the departure of TDs to the European Parliament to become MEPs, and risk losing them all.
Fianna Fáil, in contrast, look set to win at least one (Wexford with Malcolm Byrne) and are in with a great shout to win in Dublin Fingal (LorraineClifford-Lee).
All of a sudden, Varadkar from holding all the aces now sees the tide going out on him and Micheál Martin now in a stronger position.
Notwithstanding the Brexit situation, Varadkar must surely be regretting not going to the people last year when he was in such a strong position to be re-elected.
Therefore, seeking to hang on until February is a dangerous strategy as his position is only likely to get weaker, not stronger.
The one ray of hope for Varadkar and Fine Gael is the public, by and large, believe they have been doing a reasonable job in terms of Brexit.
Varadkar’s stinging rebuke of Boris Johnson last Monday on the steps of Government Buildings did his cause no harm, especially given it was done before an international audience.
Tánaiste Simon Coveney’s solid performance since taking charge of Brexit matters has also contributed to the sense that little more could be done to prepare for the fallout.
However, it is understood that relations between Coveney and Varadkar have come under strain in recent days after Varadkar’s speech at the British-Irish Chamber of Commerce in which he confirmed the need for checks near the Border.
This was at strong variance with the line Coveney had been taking all the way along. It has also been suggested by ministers that Coveney had been due to be the principle minister at a gig at Dublin Port eight days ago, only for the Taoiseach to take it away from him.
Such tension between the two men is not unexpected given their battle for theFine Gael leadership in 2017 and the pair have done a reasonable job in containing the previous animus and mistrust that existed between them.
Away from Fine Gael, Martin also appears to be content to allow the election wait until the New Year.
Soundings from their think-in in Gorey, Co Wexford last week and from the initial budget talks with Donohoe were downbeat and not hopeful of gaining much ground.
Yet, it was very clear from various sources that while there is an annoyance with Fine Gael, no one in Fianna Fáil is looking to up the ante and cause instability which could force the Government to collapse.
They are quite content to let them continue to implode and hope it will allow them return with more seats which would allow them to boot Fine Gael out of Government Buildings.
Senior sources in both parties said if they can get 60 seats next time, then they will be in pole position to lead the next administration.
So, in the weeks ahead, with one eye on the election, expect to see Donohoe come under significant pressure to further loosen the purse strings ahead of the Budget on October 8.
Expect to see Varadkar and Marti very warm with the leaders of smaller opposition parties, in case they need them to form the next government.
Let the games commence.
By Fiachra O’ Cionnaith
You know the reality of a no-deal Brexit has hit home when “prudent” and “sensible” instead of “giveaway” and “auction politics splurge” are the names of the pre-election budget game.
But if Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar believed the Brexit crisis clouds hanging over the country would give them a clear run at this year’s budget plan, they may want to think again.
While all parties are keen to stress their credentials in being able to protect the economy, that won’t stop them from differing drastically on how such protection can be achieved.
And with just three weeks under before Mr Donohoe reveals his no-deal Brexit budget plan on October 8, opposition parties have already marked his cards on key budget battlegrounds set to dominate the coming month.
What we know so far is that in light of the growing no-deal Brexit fears, the Government has decided to row back on most of its planned budget promises and to instead cut its cloth tightly to ensure Ireland is able to cope with a Brexit fallout backlash.
Speaking to reporters last week, Mr Donohoe said his budget will see a scaled-back social welfare package, a cancellation of the Government’s long-promised personal and income tax cuts pledge, and a likely U-turn on planned public service spending.
It has been speculated this weekend that a childcare allowance given to all families irrespective of their level of income may be increased in the budget.
Senior Government figures have said they are examining increasing the €20 per week universal childcare subsidy on October 8.
It has also been speculated that the Christmas bonus to all welfare recipients will be retained, although a €5 increase in primary welfare rates will not feature.
Describing the row-back on previous promises as “safe and careful”, Mr Donohoe attempted to double-down on his hoped-for image as ‘Prudent Paschal’ by saying soberly: “There will be things that many people would want me to do, and indeed in other circumstances I would like to do, that I will not be doing”.
But, when you are responsible for a €2.8bn budget, including €700m available for spending, you don’t get off that easily, with housing, social welfare, carbon tax and competing Brexit preparedness plans all set to dominate the coming debates.
Among the key pinch-points over the coming weeks’ budget talks will be what happens to key public services such as health; addressing the housing crisis; and the environment.
And it will be on these points Fianna Fáil will most likely focus its lines of — now limited — attack.
In its discussions with Fine Gael, the party is expected to echo comments made by Micheál Martin during its pre-Dáil think-in in Gorey last week that the needs of the health service cannot simply be pushed to one side just because of Brexit.
The party is also likely to push for more public housing initiatives and for new supports for people trying to buy houses — a fact emphasised by housing spokesperson Darragh O’Brien’s recent call for rents to be taken into account when someone is applying for a mortgage.
In addition, with one eye on the climate crisis and another on wooing a potential future coalition partner the Greens, it is expected to push for some form of carbon tax, although it is expected this demand will drop from a €10 charge to closer to €5.
Sinn Féin’s finance spokesperson Pearse Doherty told the Irish Examiner his party will also be seeking to protect public services and to prevent Fine Gael from using Brexit as an “excuse” to impose an austerity budget.
He said some form of social welfare package will have to be provided to help struggling families, regardless of the financial problems potentially facing the country, and that the “rainy-day fund” should be replaced with a multi-billion euro Brexit fund as “it is raining now”.
Smaller parties including Labour, the Social Democrats, and Solidarity-People Before Profit are also seeking to ensure that ordinary people are not forced to bear the brunt of the Brexit backlash, stressing that the usual budget giveaways should be sacrificed in favour of protecting existing services.
If Mr Donohoe succeeds in the difficult Brexit balancing act, he will win public support and sidestep any limited opposition attacks.
But if he fails, he will be handing rival parties a stick with which to beat the Government, just when a general election is finally coming into view.
By Elaine Loughlin
For very different reasons, both Leo Varadkar andMicheál Martin will have much to prove in the next general election, but only one will come out as winner.
The gym-going, social media-savvy young gun will be pitted against an experienced head who has repeatedly called for calm in the national interest.
But just one man can claim victory in the next general election to become taoiseach of the 33rd Dáil.
For the current Taoiseach, who was promoted from within by his own, a general election will be his first public test of him as a leader.
His predecessor, Enda Kenny, comfortably steered Fine Gael through two elections, coming out victorious and ending up sitting on the best side of the Dáil chamber.
Mr Varadkar does not want to be known as the one-term Taosieach who was crowned rather than elected, he needs a public mandate and a second go in government.
For Micheál Martin, who has spent over eight uncomfortable years on the opposition benches, this election will be now or never when it comes to his leadership.
Elections are always about timing and Micheál Martin has certainly been biding his time.
When his own party was shouting for a general election last year, Mr Martin instead sat down with the Taoiseach and handed him another year in government — all in the national interest given the Brexit chaos that loomed.
Many of his backbenchers at the time were livid, they were being slaughtered on the doorsteps, which many haven’t stopped canvassing since they won their seats in 2016 given the unsteady make-up of the Dáil.
Loyal and long-serving grassroots members of the party were also unhappy, the Fianna Fáil leader while acting responsibly was getting none of the credit for doing what was best for the country.
Just a few short months ago Micheál Martin was being tipped as the only Fianna Fáil leader in the history of the party who would fail to be honoured with the title of taoiseach.
Now he is seen by his own as the next taoiseach in waiting.
It’s all about timing.
Asked at his own party’s pre-Dáil think-in in Gorey, Co Wexford, last week if he would resign as Fianna Fáil leader if he fails to become head of government after the next election, Mr Martinappeared to be taken aback, he must have misheard the question, so asked the reporter to repeat it.
But having digested the offensive line of questioning he quickly answered that this option is most definitely “not being contemplated”.
Further pressed on whether he is now confident he can oust Mr Varadkar, he responded matter-of-factly: “That’s the objective.”
With each month that passes, Mr Martin has slowly seen his stock soar, while Leo in power has begun to wobble in the polls.
Fianna Fáil would naturally love to let Fine Gael linger in government for another few months to bear the brunt of anger from the now annual trolley crisis, homeless on our streets over Christmas and perhaps a Brexit-caused slow down in the economy.
Knowing that neither of the two larger parties is likely to have the numbers next time around, Mr Martin has also been quietly sounding out and sidling up to some of the smaller parties, including his former coalition partners the Greens who put in impressive performances in both the local and European elections.
Mr Varadkar on the other hand has signalled — publicly anyway — that he would like hang on longer for a summer election, citing May 2020 as his preferred date.
The Taosieach, who usually steers clear from the meeting and greeting side of the gig as much as possible, spent the summer on what could be an election warm-up tour of Ireland.
From traditional music festivals, to the Galway races, political summer schools and agricultural shows, Mr Varadkar was popping up across the country with Fine Gaelelection candidates on his shoulder.
“I had a great summer. I got around the country a lot and also got a break. But there is nowhere I would rather be than in government, and in the Taoiseach’s office,” he told his fellow Fine Gaelers last week at their think-in in Ballycotton, Co Cork.
And just as Mr Martin was more than confident that he will be returned as leader of the country, Mr Varadkar is also sure he will retain his Taoiseach title. “I believe we can win that election. In fact, I am sure of it even though it may not become apparent until the last week or 10 days of the election campaign,” he told his colleagues.
But he has seen the threat a Fianna Fáil-Green alliance could pose to his plans and bluntly told members at the think-in that he is“concerned” that when the next general election comes, the Green Party could be the “Trojan Horse that letsFianna Fáil back in withMicheál Martin as Taoiseach”.
Rallying the troops, he added: “They’ve done it before. We don’t want to go back to that.”
But perhaps Mr Varadkar showed his first bit of weakness on Friday, when he conceded he would “give consideration” to supporting Fianna Fáil from the opposition benches in a reversal of the current deal.
“We would have to negotiate a confidence and supply agreement. A lot of our policies would have to form part of any such agreement,” he told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, a line that no doubt left Fianna Fáil smiling over their morning coffee and eggs.
By Juno McEnroe
Taoiseach Leo Varadkaris considering whether to hold four by-elections in November to replace TDs recently elected as MEPs.
Already, candidates are jostling for position and some names are emerging as favourites for Dáil seats.
The by-elections are to replace Fianna Fáil’s Billy Kelleher in Cork North-Central, Independent Mick Wallace in Wexford, Independent Clare Daly in Dublin -Fingal and Fine Gael’sFrancis Fitzgerald in Dublin Mid-West, all of whom won seats as MEPs in May.
While theoretically, Mr Varadkar has until the end of January to hold the votes, Fine Gael strategists say the party wants to hold them in November, before any general election build-up next year.
Party selection conventions are already underway, those eager to run are campaigning, and internal rifts are playing out before the date for the by-elections has even been announced.
Cork North Central is already shaping up to be a battle. Paidi O’Sullivan has been selected to go forward for Fianna Fáil.
The Glanmire-based councillor beat off competition from other local party representatives and will hope to sweep up BillyKelleher’s support base once the race begins.
Fine Gael Senator Colm Burke was selected as their candidate in Mallow last Wednesday night. The solicitor and former MEP is the party’s Seanadspokesman on health.
Labour has yet to decide, but all eyes are on former minister Kathleen Lynch and whether she will seek a return to the Dáil.
She came fifth in the four-seater in the 2016 general election.
Local Labour councillor John Maher is also expected to compete for selection.
Sinn Féin sees this constituency as its strongest chance of a win. The party’s ard Chomhairle last week gave the go-ahead for selections and either Cllr Ken Collins or Cllr Tommy Gould will go forward. The latter fell just short of joining party TD Jonathan O’Brien in the Dáil in 2016.
Green councillor Oliver Moran has been chosen as the party’s candidate, while the Social Democrats are expected to put equality campaigner Sinead Halpin forward.
Issues expected to feature in Cork North Central include high rents, drugs, affordable housing, childcare costs, and infrastructure, including issues around the proposedDunkettle roundabout.
In Dublin Mid-West, the attention is on whether Fine Gael can retain the seat of Frances Fitzgerald.
Cllr Emer Higgins is expected to be selected at a convention on October 4 and stands a good chance of winning a seat.
The Clondalkin-based business manager has been a councillor for seven years.
Fianna Fáil has yet to pick a candidate, but Labour will run former TD Joanna Tuffy, while the Greens have chosen local councillor Peter Kavanagh.
Sinn Féin is expected to back former South Dublin lord mayor Cllr Mark Ward. The Social Democrats will run the party’s political director Anne-Marie McNally.
In the heavily-populated constituency of Dublin Fingal, those vying to replace MEP Clare Daly will face voter concerns over childcare, commuting, and housing costs.
Labour is confident of doing well with Swords-based councillor Duncan Smith, who hopes to sweep up support from Daly’s base. While a decision has yet to be made by Fianna Fáil, party senator Lorraine Clifford-Lee is expected to be chosen.
Fine Gael’s former health minister James Reilly is expected to be chosen at its selection meeting tonight. Sinn Féin is expected to back Balbriggan-based councillor Malachy Quinn; the Greens will run councillor Joe O’Brien, while the Social Democrats will field local candidate Tracey Carey.
In Wexford, there is strong competition to replace former Independent TD Mick Wallace but the county is split in many ways, economically and politically.
Fianna Fáil look the favourites to do well here with candidate Malcolm Byrne, who not only topped the poll in the local elections in his native Gorey, but also received almost 70,000 first preference votes in the European elections.
However, he will face stiff competition from Labour’s Mayor of Wexford Town, George Lawlor, who topped the poll there in the local elections. Sinn Féin have high hopes for Enniscorthy-based Johnny Mythen, who just missed out on a Dáil seat in 2016 but did not hold his council seat in May.
The Social Democrats and Greens do not plan to run a candidate here.
It is unclear whether independents in the by-elections will be backed by Clare Daly or Mick Wallace. Solidarity-PBP will likely run one candidate in Cork North Central, with local councillor and housing campaigner Cllr Fiona Ryan. That selection will take place this month.
Under legislation for the Dáil by-elections, they must be called by the Taoiseach within six months of the first European parliament day wherein new MEPs took their seats. This means Mr Varadkar will have to announce the dates for the four by-elections at the latest by January 2.
The votes must go ahead between 18 and 25 days after, not including Sundays and bank holidays. That would then theoretically give parties up until the last day in January before people would go to the polls.
Prior to the Dáil summer recess, the consensus among Fine Gael was that the by-elections would be irrelevant, as some thought Mr Varadkar was engineering a snap general election in November.
The logic was that thispre-empted the worst of the winter months with hospital overcrowding.
The feeling was that the Government preferred a full general election, rather than risk suffering losses with the four votes.
However, given recent developments with Brexit, the preference, including among Fianna Fáil, is that any talk of a general election should be parked until the new year.
Fianna Fáil leaderMicheál Martin only last week told this newspaper he didn’t “believe there should be a general election this side of Christmas, even if there is an [Brexit] extension.”
Fine Gael think the same. And there is almost agnostic feeling among that party that they may lose three or more of the by-elections, with Dublin Mid-West being their best hope.
One party strategist said: “Bear in mind, we only had one seat [Francis Fitzgerald] of the four.
“The media are making it out we could be down four seats.”
Separately, there will be a Seanad by-election to replace Green senator GraceO’Sullivan, who also was elected to Europe.
But there is no time limit on when this must take place under legislation.