The rift between Fine Gael and the Independent Alliance widened last night after Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar accused his Government partners of risking the coalition’s stability over the recent abortion bill controversy.
In a strongly worded statement, Independent Alliance ministers Finian McGrath and John Halligan described the comments as “quite outrageous” and told Mr Varadkar and Fine Gael backbenchers to “look internally” if they want to find out who is “destabilising” the Government’s future.
The latest row comes as pressure continues to mount on Taoiseach Enda Kenny to set out the timetable of his departure from office.
And while senior Fianna Fáil TDs yesterday said they still plan on backing the coalition from opposition for three years, the dual controversies have raised fresh questions over how long the current Government will last.
Speaking on RTÉ’s The Week in Politics after attending the Somme commemoration events in Kilmainham, Dublin, Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar said Independent Alliance ministers who backed the opposition bill seeking to legalise abortion in fatal foetal abnormality cases were wrong to do so.
“I think it was an error on behalf of those Independents,” he said. “Maybe they thought they would be seen as heroes, but it destabilised the Government and has damaged the Independent brand as well.
“I would hope they [the Independent Alliance] will reflect on this week and that it will not happen again.”
The comment, which Mr Varadkar repeated twice in the same interview, followed similar remarks by Fine Gael MEP Brian Hayes, who hours earlier said “some of the Independent don’t get” what it means to be in power.
The remarks were heavily criticised by Independent Alliance ministers Finian McGrath and John Halligan last night.
Disabilities Minister McGrath said he “totally rejected” the remark, while Training and Skills Minister Mr Halligan went further, saying Mr Varadkar’s view was “quite outrageous” and “fundamentally wrong”.
He added that Fine Gael TDs, not the Independent Alliance, were “most destabilising to the Government” and that Mr Varadkar should “look internally” in future if he wants to blame anyone for the coalition’s difficulties.
The latter comment was in reference to mounting pressure on Mr Kenny to clarify when he will step down as Fine Gael leader after a series of controversies last week led to widespread backbench calls for him to outline when the succession race will begin.
Mr Varadkar — who in a poll last week was named as the most popular candidate to replace the Taoiseach, on 31%, followed by Housing Minister Simon Coveney on 21% — yesterday stressed “Enda Kenny will decide in his own time when he wants to relinquish the leadership”.
In what has been seen as an indication to backbench TDs who may be in favour of his candidacy, Mr Varadkar added that Mr Kenny has only recently been re-elected Taoiseach and that “I don’t think it would be right to push him, I don’t think it would be the right thing to do”.
However, despite similar positions being taken by Mr Coveney and Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald over the weekend, pressure is mounting within Fine Gael for clarity on the issue.
Speaking to the Irish Examiner yesterday, several Fine Gael TDs said they would not support a rumoured no confidence motion in Mr Kenny if it is tabled for Wednesday’s parliamentary party meeting.
However, the vast majority said they said they still expect him to clarify when expects to leave office at Wednesday’s meeting, with an ongoing belief he will leave within months.
The Taoiseach is likely to face further questions over the imminent succession race tomorrow when he meets the media after a Brexit-related discussion German chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin.
Fianna Fáil communications spokesman Timmy Dooley said yesterday his party plans to support Fine Gael for the next three years.
However, Fianna Fáil finance spokesman Michael McGrath later noted this is only if the Government “continues to function” and does not become a “lame duck” coalition.
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