With recent resignations and multiple ongoing crises, this Government has lost control of the Dáil and can’t last much longer, writes political correspondent Juno McEnroe
FEARFUL of being picked off and cornered by the opposition over voters’ winter complaints, coalition figures have been searching for the exit door from this Government for a while now.
There are mixed opinions about when an election should take place, but amid fresh new-year political hurdles, some ministers are keenly aware that the Fine Gael-led coalition’s race has been run.
It is not just a case of leaving behind parliamentary spats and offering voters shiny new spending promises in an election campaign. It is also because the Coalition has lost control of the Dáil.
Most importantly, there is little reason for Fianna Fáil, under the Government support pact known as confidence and supply, to continue its arrangement with Fine Gael. That relationship is burnt.
For many months now, TDs around the corridors of Leinster House have been quietly grumbling to themselves (and to those willing to listen) that this Dáil is a ‘walking dead parliament’, where votes in the main matter little and where opposition is neutered under the confidence and supply deal.
This is the do-nothing-Dáil, they say. There is a sense of fatigue; ideas are spent; political strategies are stunted; progress on policies have come to a halt; and every week feels like Groundhog Day, where events repeat (or fail) ad nauseum.
Of course, this is not necessarily the Coalition’s fault. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his team will argue that they are overseeing previously outlined projects and policies, such as rural broadband, the construction of the national children’s hospitals, as well as health and housing reforms.
But politics is often a numbers game. And the numbers are up for the Coalition.
With the resignation of Cork North-Central TD Dara Murphy prior to the Christmas break and a pledge by rebel Fianna Fáil TD John McGuinness to vote against the Government in any confidence motion, the Fine Gael- Independents administration is now left to stumble through Dáil votes.
Its control is uncertain when it comes to passing through legislation and any opposition threats to topple a minister could very well come to fruition.
Such have been made by rural independent TDs this week, who now have their sights on embattled Health Minister Simon Harris and a possible vote against him and effectively the Government’s position in February.
Another change is that the shackles which prevented this Government (and Fianna Fáil) from cutting loose and going to the polls have now been taken off.
The rolling crises over Brexit have more or less come to an end — for the moment. And while there were all sorts of fears of a disorderly British exit from the European Union for most of last year, the deal agreed by British prime minister Boris Johnson late last year, as well as his strengthened mandate after elections over there, mean that Brexit will now go ahead — but, at least at this stage, without the prospect of a crash-out and all that that would entail for the Irish economy.
Granted, sensitive trade talks lie ahead. But for the moment, the main political parties here are free to take risks and go to the country.
Agreed in May 2016, this pact keeps the Fine Gael-Independents coalition in office through the parliamentary support (or confidence) of Fianna Fáil.
In return, the main opposition party benefits from seeing some of its policies, such as funds for public services, making it into budgets.
Always tenuous and likely to suffer breakdowns, this pact between Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin is now all but a rag, torn and frayed at the edges
with blurry lines and illegible.
Recent tense exchanges between the two party leaders show that the deal has reached its end; Fianna Fáil TDs are champing at the bit to go to the polls; there is little sense that the deal has a purpose still; and remaining TD numbers in the Dáil have removed parliamentary control from the pact.
There’s no chance this pact can last much longer. And both leaders (and the country) know this.
While Fianna Fáil says the continuation of the 32nd Dáil would give more time to legislate for over-70s medical cards, to introduce new drug-law reforms, and to ease nursing home costs, many of its TDs are ready and eager to begin campaigning.
For the Coalition, it continues to argue that ongoing reforms in health must go ahead and that the housing crisis is being tackled.
Furthermore, the rural broadband contract has only recently been signed. There are also important EU-UK trade talks looming which will decide how Britain is treated when it leaves the union.
Crucially, Ireland needs to ensure that these terms are favourable and facilitate Ireland’s ongoing €1bn a week trade with Britain. Pending climate change legislation has also yet to come before the Dáil.
But much of Fine Gael’s 2016 election promises have either commenced, are complete, or are spent.
While ministers (files in hand) will say they they are busy and have more work to do, the boxes for most of the biggest projects and Coalition ambitions have been ticked.
For Fine Gael to recover some of its support, it will need to effectively step aside from daily Government activity and enter election mode. Varadkar knows this. And his ministers, keen to move away from problems such as health and housing, have privately made clear their desire to seek a fresh mandate.
If Varadkar deems the 32nd Dáil has come to an end, the key thing for his party, and others, is the timing of that call. Winters don’t favour campaigning politicians. Voters won’t open their doors, campaigns are fought on the airwaves, and hospital overcrowding plus a general lack of consumer confidence in January often impact on the incumbents. Nonetheless, the last two general elections were fought in February, in 2016 and also in 2011. Martin wants an orderly wind-down of this Dáil and Government for a vote to be held after Easter, possibly in April or early May.
But it is difficult to see the limping Coalition under Varadkar lasting that long, especially with irate opposition TDs smelling blood.