Daniel McConnell: Coalition facing death by a thousand cuts

Many of the government's early woes were self-inflicted and preventable, writes Political Editor, Daniel McConnell
Daniel McConnell: Coalition facing death by a thousand cuts
Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Minister for Enterprise Leo Varadkar and Minister for Climate Action Communications Networks and Transport Eamon Ryan at Dublin Castle. Picture: Stephen Collins

It was a shambolic end to a shambolic term, which has left the body politic shaken and stirred, to say the least.

Anyone who watched the farce in the Dáil chamber on Thursday night would have been confronted with a disgraceful and unedifying performance by our elected politicians.

Amid accusations of treachery,betrayal, and people acting disgracefully, proceedings were forced to run until 2.30am, with a two-hour row over speaking rights.

As a result, the Dáil’s youngest TD, James O’Connor of Cork East, had to wait to raise his topical issue about the congestion in his home town of Castlemartyr and the potential of the M25 being built.

The scenes may have been great soap opera material, but it reflected poorly on well-paid people (€100,000-odd a year, plus expenses) who really ought to know better.

With the Dáil now in recess until September 15, it is a welcome opportunity to take a breath and to stand back and assess the sheer enormity of the events of the past five weeks since the Government was formed, but more importantly of 2020 in its entirety, so far.

For the three Government party leaders — Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, and Climate Minister Eamon Ryan — the break is also a chance for them to regain some control of the narrative, which has run away from them since they came together on June 27.

After 139 days of an interregnum and the relatively smooth passage of the programme for government, the new coalition got off to the worst possible start. 

Mayo TD and Fianna Fáil deputy leader Dara Calleary’s omission from the line-up of full cabinet ministers stunned many.

Nobody saw it coming.

Named as chief whip, Calleary’s disappointment was met with shock and anger throughout the party and Fine Gael made it known that its line-up was drawn up on the basis of Calleary being a sure thing to be a minister.

But he wasn’t, and it allowed Opposition TDs such as Michael Fitzmaurice to cry foul and declare there was no senior minister from Donegal to Limerick.

Martin was adjudged to have mis-stepped at the first hurdle.

The appointment of the junior ministers days later was no less fraught, with complaints that gender imbalances were allowed to continue.

The Government pointed to the fact that nine of the 11 Taoiseach nominees to the Seanad were women and that Senator Pippa Hackett was appointed a super junior minister, but their defence rang hallow.

They were on the rack and days of rancour and fall-out continued.

Matters escalated significantly with the revelation of Barry Cowen’s 2016 drink-driving offence while on a provisional licence.

Ten days of scandal, a Dáil apology, further revelations about the circumstances of the incident, followed by arefusal by Cowen to desist from his legalistic approach to the matter, led to his sacking by Martin.

Cowen was secure in his decision-making, was prepared to abide by his leader’s decision, and has caused no trouble since. Martin’s leadership was challenged by Cowen’s refusal to play ball as he saw it, and his decisiveness in removing his colleague from office helped re-establish his authority over the shaky coalition.

At this stage, gleeful Fine Gael TDs and ministers were watching on, delighted that they were not the focus of the public’s ire or derision.

They didn’t have long to wait.

The revelations that Simon Coveney, no longer Tánaiste Simon Coveney, got to keep his Garda driver and that Leo Varadkar was to be given an aide-de-camp and a beefed-up office drew unwanted attention and suggestions about feathering their own nests at a time of a global pandemic.

This image of feather-nesting was not helped by the mishandling of the issue of the €16,000 top-up allowance for junior ministers.

The Government sought to ram it through the Dáil, with many of their own TDs unhappy at the lack of notice, only for a swift U-turn to be performed.

Amid this controversy and in a bid to end the furore, the Taoiseach announced a 10% pay cut on his own and his ministers’ salaries.

Announced on the same day as Norma Foley’s €375m education plan, you know the game is going against you when the announcement of a pay cut goes badly wrong.

The following day’s papers reported on the pay cut announcement but some had figured that, because of financial jiggery-pokery related to previous waivers by former governments, Martin and his ministers are still better off than their predecessors.

Nothing seemed to be going right.

And while all of that was going on, the row over the withdrawal of the pandemic unemployment payment (PUP) erupted following a story last weekend which said 140 people had had their monies stopped when leaving the country.

Varadkar went on TV and said airlines and airports were sharing information (which they weren’t), but said the removal of these payments had always been part of the welfare code when people leave the country.

Social Protection Minister Heather Humphreys backed her party leader up and dug in during a late-night Dáil debate on Tuesday, only to be told to perform a U-turn on the matter less than 12 hours later. 

This was on foot of a diktat from the three party leaders, who met and discussed the matter and decided what needed to be done.

Just as the Government limped to the line on Thursday, the unseemly row over speaking rights erupted, while the Green Party, after the conclusion of its leadership contest, was seemingly falling apart, one of its ministers, Joe O’Brien, abstaining and whip Neasa Hourigan voting against a Government bill on rent freezes and evictions.

Both deserved to be sacked but they weren’t, and Ryan fluffed his lines as leader of his party. 

The paltry slap on the wrists they got is likely to store up major problems for Ryan and the wider Government when really tough decisions need to be taken. This had much to do with the maelstrom of controversy which preceded the votes and the fact it was the last day of term.

On one level, you could put this extraordinary series of foul-ups down to individual mistakes in a new Government just bedding in. However, the truth is, many of the controversies were self-inflicted and undermined much of the very good work this Government has already done.

The scale of the July Stimulus package, at €7bn, is the equivalent to two budgets, yet it got a day, maybe two, of the news cycle on its announcement.

Foley’s education plan has been well received but was overshadowed by the PUP and ministerial pay controversies.

In the short run, such “side-tracks” are annoying but surmountable. Long- term, they are fatal.

However, such flare-ups and bust-ups are preventable.

One of the most important aspects of the programme for government was the publication of a document on how the three party leaders will seek to keep control.

What Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and the Greens have decided to do is create a Government co-ordination cabinet committee.

“This committee, comprising of the leaders of each party in Government, shall meet each week in advance of Cabinet, and on other occasions when deemed necessary. In addition to the party leaders, the Secretary General to the Government shall attend save for political discussions, as shall nominated advisers to the party leaders. Other ministers, officials and advisers may attend by invitation of the Leaders,” a key government document sets out.

The Taoiseach made it clear that if any party has a concern, this inner committee is the forum for its resolution.

This forum of the three leaders has already been seriously tested and come the return of the Dáil in September, it will have to assert its authority if this rocky coalition is to last.

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