Q&A: Did the Green Party let off O'Brien and Hourigan lightly?

Q&A: Did the Green Party let off O'Brien and Hourigan lightly?
Green party Junior Minister Joe O'Brien abstained on the final vote on the Residential Tenancies Bill. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

The light “sanction” on Minister Joe O’Brien and Neasa Hourigan by the Green Party for their actions in the Dáil on Thursday has surprised many within government and beyond. 

Normally, such moves are met with much swifter and harsher penalties. 

It is worthwhile now looking at just how and why they escaped with just a two-month speaking ban, at a time when the Dáil is in recess for six weeks. 

Here, we attempt to answer the questions:

Q: What is all the fuss about?

A: As government TDs, they are expected to at all times vote in support of a government bill in the Dáil. Their failure to do so runs contrary to the normal rules of how political parties under a whip system operate.

Q: What did they actually do?

A: During the debate on the Residential Tenancies Bill, Ms Hourigan on five separate occasions voted against the Government on various amendments. 

Mr O’Brien abstained on the final vote on the entire bill.

Q: Why did they do it?

A: Both Ms Hourigan and Mr O’Brien said they had issues with the proposal of the bill to extend protections to people from rent hikes or evictions, saying the moves do not go far enough. 

Ms Hourigan, in particular, highlighted the fact that the bill was not a matter included in the Programme for Government and was contrary to Green Party policy.

Q: So what would normally expect to happen?

A: As a result of defying the government, it is traditional that the member involved would automatically lose their party whip and become independent TDs. 

For office-holders, any decision to abstain or vote against the government is a matter for resignation or sacking, normally.

Q: What happened in this case?

A: On Thursday evening, Green Party leader Eamon Ryan spoke to Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and it was agreed to leave the issue as an internal one for the Greens to sort. 

Mr Martin did not seek Mr O’Brien’s head. “It’s rare to be hanged for a first offence,” was the sense given. Mr Varadkar concurred. 

Mr Ryan then called a meeting of his parliamentary party that night to discuss the issue and how to handle it.

Q: How did Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael ministers react?

A: Many were bemused and surprised at the lack of swift sanction. 

Some felt by letting them away with it, they were undermining the stability of the government. Others were furious, saying Mr O’Brien’s position is not tenable.

Q: So, what sanction was actually handed down?

A: In a statement, the party said on Friday: “The Parliamentary Party of the Green Party met following the final vote last night. 

The group decided to sanction Deputy Neasa Hourigan and Minister of State Joe O'Brien for voting against the Government and abstaining. Both have had their speaking rights removed for two months.” 

Q: Is that the end of the matter?

A: Yes and No. Both the Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil leaders have made clear they were not demanding the head of Mr O’Brien but it has become clear there is a discernible annoyance at the leniency of said sanction within the two larger parties.

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