The Irish Examiner political team cast an eye over the major issues facing Ireland's electorate and how they have been tackled by Fianna Fáil.
Fianna Fáil has cried wolf so often since agreeing to prop up Fine Gael in Government that some members have grown disillusioned with the situation, writes Political Editor Daniel McConnell.
"It is a pain in the backside. We are grinning and bearing it to be honest.”
That is the rather frank assessment of how some of Micheál Martin’s chief lieutenants in Fianna Fáil see life at the moment in having to prop up Fine Gael in Government.
The deep sense of unease throughout the party at the 14-month-old ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement — which commits Fianna Fáil to not blocking three budgets — has led the party into a cul-de-sac of populism and angst.
The signs of strain on the Soldiers of Destiny are beginning to show — but after several threats to withdraw their support and then stopping short of actually doing it, they have become the boys who cried wolf.
That 15th-century tale is about a shepherd boy who repeatedly tricks nearby villagers into thinking wolves are attacking his flock to gain sympathy and support.
When a wolf actually does appear and the boy again calls for help, the villagers believe that it is another false alarm and the sheep are eaten by the wolf.
After Fianna Fáil’s latest march up the mountain on the recent controversy over former attorney general Máire Whelan’s appointment to the Court of Appeal, the party has rightly opened itself up to ridicule as to its credibility.
According to senior party figures, Jim O’Callaghan, Fianna Fáil’s justice spokesman, went on a solo run in saying the appointment was a surprise and did call into question the confidence and supply agreement.
“He went too far and as a lawyer he is probably used to finessing his argument in court. But you can’t finesse your argument in a 15-second clip on the Six One News,” said a colleague.
Yet O’Callaghan’s wings haven’t been clipped by Martin, who appears willing to forgive his legal man.
“There is unease from our members at us marching up the hill so often and coming back down with nothing to show for it. Sooner or later we will have to do more than talk about pulling the plug,” said the source.
Aside from the Whelan issue, Fianna Fáil has behaved in a shamelessly populist manner in respect of water charges.
In the renegotiated programme for government in the summer of 2009, the late Brian Lenihan, as finance minister, committed to a charging system that “is fair, significantly reduces waste, and is easily applied”.
Then on his way out of office, Lenihan committed to a water charges regime in the document which underpinned the €85bn Troika bailout programme in late 2010.
Spooked by the emergence of hard-left elements such as Anti Austerity Alliance TD Paul Murphy, Fianna Fáil, Labour, and Sinn Féin all saw themselves being outflanked on the left and they panicked.
In its 2016 general election manifesto, entitled ‘An Ireland for All’, Fianna Fáil came out in favour of abolishing Irish Water and scrapping water charges.
“Irish Water has been a complete failure on the part of the government,” stated the manifesto.
“Since it failed the Euro-stat test, the very reason it was set up, it is incapable of delivering major investment in our water network. Instead it is imposing a water charges regime where families are paying for a service that does not deliver, operated by a quango that simply is not working. People should not be expected to pay for a service that is not up to standard.”
Since the election, they first caused the suspension of water charges.
They have now gone further and done the dirty deal with Fine Gael, which sees charges all but abolished and the cost of running the country’s broken water system coming out of general taxation.
By doing so, the party was espousing a policy that was illegal, damaging to the environment, and will also inevitably cost the Irish taxpayer hundreds of millions of euro in EU fines.
It was clear from its latest position on water charges that it has learned nothing from its past mistakes.
And that raises genuine concerns about whether it can be entrusted with the levers of power.
As political scientist Brigid Laffan said, the Fianna Fáil U-turn on water charges has the capacity to undermine all of the hard work that made the economic recovery possible.
“The political U-turns on this issue highlight the ease and dangers of populist politics: The political chain is easily identified. Paul Murphy frightened Sinn Féin and in turn Sinn Féin frightened Fianna Fáil,” she said.
“The evolving FF policy is the most worrying of all. Having argued for a suspension of charges, the party has apparently moved to support their abolition. It should remind us of the abolition of domestic rates in the late 1970s rather than their reform,” she said.
In the Dáil recently, shortly before he became Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar sought to expose Fianna Fáil’s opportunism.
In heated exchanges on water charges, Varadkar attacked Martin’s party U-turns. He told Solidarity TD Murphy, who opposed water charges, he wanted to “congratulate” him on the role he had played in reducing Fianna Fáil to what it was now.
“The party of Lemass, the party that was once proud to stand up for things… that would do the right thing for the Irish people… is now in a position that it determines its position on water solely out of their fear of you and Sinn Féin,” said Varadkar.
Fianna Fáil has cried wolf on issues from mental health to the budget and every time has stopped short of pulling the plug on this shoddy jerry-built paradise that is the so-called new politics.
Some of Martin’s most loyal footsoliders would welcome an election and a chance to get back into government.
“There are enough of us who would happily do a deal with either Sinn Féin or Fine Gael if it meant getting into power. We are getting none of the rewards for propping up Fine Gael and they are up again in the polls,” said one frontbench member.
Yet, Martin, who is as strong and secure in his position as leader as he has ever been, is not minded to think that way.
After 14 months, it is hard to see what benefit Fianna Fáil have received from the current arrangement but what is clear is that it had led them back towards the rank populism of the past, which destroyed so many lives over the past decade.
The party has some fine advocates in its top echelons including Dara Calleary and Michael McGrath, and one would wish their voices would be heard more rather than some of the more intemperate ones, who appear to have held sway in recent times.
Bottom line, it is time for the party to once and for all grow up.
by Fiachra Ó Cionnaith
For one fleeting moment earlier this year, it looked as if Fianna Fáil was finally ready to act.
With the country appalled by the Maurice McCabe smear allegations, the fake breath-tests scandal and the first suggestions of financial issues at the Garda college, Micheál Martin took to the airwaves on March 26 to make his — and his party’s — views known.
As the most senior officer in the force, he said Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan no longer had his party’s support.
“I think the commissioner should consider her position,” Mr Martin told RTÉ Radio One’s This Week programme at the time.
“The bottom line is we can no longer articulate confidence in the Garda commissioner, or the [then] minister [for justice, Frances Fitzgerald].”
The implication for a Government which was, and still remains, officially supportive of Ms O’Sullivan, was very clear: Remove her now or you will be removed yourselves.
However, while the opportunity to force Ms O’Sullivan from office and tear up the confidence and supply deal with Fine Gael on a clear issue of public concern subsequently presented itself when Sinn Féin, Labour and Solidarity-People Before Profit put down motions on this exact issue, Fianna Fáil failed to deliver.
Strong words and warnings on the airwaves are one thing.
But when it comes to votes in the Dáil to resolve the situation, abstinence remains Fianna Fáil’s default position in the current political arena.
As has been explained in minute detail by Mr Martin and his party’s justice spokesperson Jim O’Callaghan in the months that have followed, the reasoning for Fianna Fáil’s failure to force the removal of Ms O’Sullivan — and by association, of the Government — on the issue is very simple.
Legally, only the Government of the day can remove the Garda commissioner — and even then only in rare cases — meaning that no opposition party should table a motion to seek her resignation as this would not be in compliance with current rules and set a dangerous precedent for the future.
However, while the argument is understandable, the repeated dependence on it to explain Fianna Fáil’s position of wanting to remove Ms O’Sullivan but failing to act to do so has not helped the party’s credibility — or its claim that it is in opposition and not simply propping up the current coalition.
In recent weeks, outspoken Fianna Fáil backbencher John McGuinness has again raised the issue of the frustration felt by some elements within the party with the stance, telling his party’s weekly meeting on May 11 that the failure to act is undermining the party.
However, while the McCabe smear allegations continue to be discussed at the Disclosures Tribunal; the Public Accounts Committee continues to examine the Garda college scandal; and the Policing Authority questions the validity of Garda facts in the wake of the breath tests controversy, Fianna Fáil has yet to make the move it has threatened for so long.
The party has made it plain it would remove Ms O’Sullivan if it was in office, in a clear indication to voters that they should vote Fianna Fáil back into power if they want action on the issue.
But while the same conclusion could be reached by simply forcing the current Government to remove Ms O’Sullivan by voting for her removal and breaking the confidence and supply deal, due to the pressure this would place on the coalition, Fianna Fáil is unwilling — or at least unready — to act.
Fianna Fáil’s position on Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan is understandable, legally sensible, and entirely coherent, with official legislation governing the issue.
However, the party’s repeated claim that while it wants to remove Ms O’Sullivan it is unable to do so while in opposition means that its threats against Government on the matter are hollow, at best.
by Juno McEnroe
The appointment of government legal adviser Máire Whelan to the second highest court in the land had all the hallmarks of classic stroke politics.
It was Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s last Cabinet meeting and as is tradition, a lot of ‘unfinished’ business gets done when politicians are on the way out the door.
This time, Transport Minister Shane Ross tweeted that his local Stepaside Garda Station was reopening. The same day, Cabinet agreed to Whelan’s promotion to the Court of Appeal, a role usually given to a judge and not a lawyer like Whelan. Ross had specifically said he would block such judicial promotions until a new appointments system was agreed. But he let this one through.
Fianna Fáil went almost apoplectic. Party leader Micheal Martin said the Whelan appointment “stinks to high heaven”.
Justice spokesman Jim O’Callaghan went further. He suggested on radio that the attorney general’s surprise promotion had breached the fragile confidence and supply agreement, the government support deal, between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Were we heading for a break-up after a breach of trust between the tetchy political parties?
O’Callaghan, a barrister, maintained that Whelan’s appointment to the €180,000-a-year job should not go ahead. It was not the lawyer herself, but the manner in which she was promoted, especially as it had not gone through the traditional judicial appointments advisory board process.
“It is now a significant political issue and if we can’t find answers to the questions raised, then the nomination must be revoked,” O’Callaghan argued.
The preferment by Cabinet had ruptured the alliance between the two parties, he contended.
“There is a provision within the confidence and supply agreement which said there should be no surprises. This is clearly a surprise that was sprung not just on Fianna Fáil but on the whole political system last Tuesday at a time when they thought they could sneak it through.
“It is my view that it would be a breach of agreement if this stands without the satisfactory explanations and assurances,” he said.
O’Callaghan, flagged in some quarters as a potential future Fianna Fáil leader, was clearly signalling there was danger ahead.
For days after the June 13 appointment, interviews and Dáil statements fuelled concerns Fianna Fáil were threatened to rip up the government support pact.
A defensive Shane Ross cried that there had been no quid pro quo or deal done.
A slew of newly promoted ministers queued up to insist Whelan was qualified and the Kenny administration had obeyed the letter of the law and broken no rules.
Fianna Fáil played down talk of a snap election but reiterated that their patience was being “used up”.
There was inevitably a sense of Groundhog Day politics here, that we were reliving the threat of political separation by Fianna Fáil again and again, like so many other Dáil spats that have gone by the wayside and fizzled out over a weekend.
But the results of the Whelan appointment row revealed two things of interest. Many Leinster House observers agreed Mr Martin had gone over the top in personalising Dáil comments about Ms Whelan after she was appointed a judge.
After her quick appointment, Mr Martin compared her to other elevated legal figures, saying she was “no Adrian Hardiman” or “no Donal O’Donnell”. It was a step too far, observed party insiders, and showed a fresh flaw in the lead opposition leader.
Equally, exchanges between Martin and Varadkar on the floor of the Dáil were probably the most revealing when it came to assessing new relations with the regime change.
“Spiky” was a term widely used to describe their tiff, which included a discussion about a private weekend phonecall over the controversial Whelan affair.
There was little political benefit for Fianna Fáil in flying its red flag so high on the Whelan affair, but it was the right thing to do.
But curiously, the fallout over the judicial appointment has moved the Dáil doomsday clock closer to the final hour before an election.
By Fiachra Ó Cionnaith
When Solidarity-People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith claimed earlier this year that Fianna Fáil had done so many U-turns on water it was now performing S-bends, the comment touched a nerve.
The damning indictment was quickly attacked by the Soldiers of Destiny’s fiercest rank and file as little more than an opposition rival’s attempt to dampen down any possibility of Fianna Fáil gaining support for trying to end water charges.
However, the claim was more accurate than Micheál Martin’s party would like to believe.
And it is key to highlighting the repeated indecision by Fianna Fáil over whether to finally submerge the drowning confidence and supply deal in the water charges debacle, or to allow it to bob along on the surface just that little bit longer until a more attractive moment to strike comes into view.
Between the February 16, 2016 general election and this spring, water charges were among the most likely stumbling points of the deal between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, with neither party willing to budge on an issue that was central to their voter base.
And while Fianna Fáil can understandably claim they ultimately played the responsible political role in ensuring a solution was found instead of simply pulling down the Government at the first sign of trouble, the fact its strategy on the issue is peppered with contradictions and indecision has done little for its image of being willing to hold Fine Gael fully to account.
The first Fianna Fáil threat to pull down the Government over the water charges occurred even before the Government officially began, during the months of negotiations to form a coalition between February and May last year.
A key demand from Fianna Fáil from the outset was that the party wanted to freeze the fees for the duration of the incoming Dáil and to examine ways to find a potentially more politically safe way to implement funding changes. The view was strongly rejected by Fine Gael in its spring 2016 talks.
However, after a number of warnings on how failing to agree to scrap fees would instantly see a return to the polls, a compromise deal — which did not specifically say the charges would end — was found.
By September last year, as the European Commission was making it clear Ireland could in theory face significant fines if it scrapped charges completely, claims the issue could lead to a snap election again returned to the Fianna Fáil agenda.
Ultimately, the policy of seeking to remain in discussions proved successful, with a deal finally being reached with Fine Gael on the issue this spring.
However, it was not before one last flurry of election threats that again were ultimately not acted upon. In early April, with a week’s-long standoff in the water charges committee coming to a boil, Fianna Fáil’s housing and local government spokesperson Barry Cowen said his party would not back the election of a new Fine Gael Taoiseach to replace Enda Kenny if it did not see all of its water demands enacted.
The e-mail to Fianna Fáil TDs before being published, sent with the seal of approval of Micheál Martin’s office, said both Fine Gael leadership contenders Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney “would be well advised to understand” their opposition to Fianna Fáil plans risked an election.
“Fianna Fáil will require full confirmation of Fine Gael’s intention to honour its commitments under the confidence and supply agreement before facilitating any potential changes to government personnel and roles.
"We have had many problems with Fine Gael’s behaviour and have already signalled to Fine Gael our extreme annoyance at breaches to the spirit and letter of the agreement.
“However, the handling of water in recent weeks has brought this to a head. Instead of working constructively with others, Fine Gael has sought to escalate problems. On a mounting series of occasions, they have acted in clear bad faith,” he said.
Despite the threat, however, once again some form of deal was reached, with both parties backing away from the likelihood of an election on an issue that would fail to benefit either antagonist.
Fianna Fáil understandably pushed on the water charges issue, and can claim the strategy has resulted in some genuine success. However, the fact the party was unwilling to pull down the Government on this key issue has also undermined similar threats on different matters.
The often-overlooked issue of mental health has been a sticking point for Fianna Fáil. When Fine Gael reneged on its funding promise laid down in the confidence and supply agreement, Fianna Fáil was particularly aggrieved.
Access to out-of-hours support and the severe lack of beds available for young people and the level of service in general have all been repeatedly raised in the Dáil.
Fianna Fáil has frequently voiced consternation and disappointment over the Government’s lack of investment in mental health provisions and has toyed with bringing the Government down on the issue, but has yet to pull the plug.
Its excuse has been that it would rather hang tight to see the delivery of key issues instead of simply calling time on the shaky minority government.
In an interview with the Irish Examiner in April, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin declared that the confidence and supply agreement had been breached. He singled out mental health funding as one of the key areas where promises had been broken.
“We feel Government has essentially breached the confidence and supply [deal] on mental health,” Mr Martin said.
“They haven’t given us sufficient funding as per the agreement in terms of implementing vision for change.”
Mr Martin said he had been in talks with then taoiseach Enda Kenny on the issue and warned that there would be consequences if adequate funding was not provided for.
When Leo Varadkar took over as Taoiseach earlier this month, mental health was again raised as a substantive and niggling problem when Mr Martin met him.
“We made it clear that we are not entirely happy with the last 12 months in terms of the execution of the confidence and supply agreement,” Mr Martin said after the meeting.
“In mental health, there has been a clear breach of the agreement and we identified that with him. We identified mental health as something that there needs to be far greater and more rapid progress on.”
Far in advance of last October’s budget, Fianna Fáil had identified mental health as one of their main priorities and pushed for significant increases in supports.
While the Government promised to initiate €35m in mental health spending that was stipulated in the confidence and supply agreement, it later emerged only €15m of that would be made available in 2017 — a clear breach of the agreement.
Mental health received a 1.8% increase in funds compared to the 7.5% increase awarded to health as a whole.
Fianna Fáil spokesman on mental health, James Browne also said the Government’s proposals for mental health funding in 2017 were not satisfactory.
“The confidence and supply arrangement commits to fully implement Vision for Change in the area of mental health. I want to see a multi-annual plan for how that will be done,” Mr Browne said at the time.
The Vision for Change document was first published in 2006 and focused on building positive mental health through providing accessible, community-based, specialist services for people with mental illness.
Mr Browne argued that there has been significant under-funding in recent years and called for that practice to change.
“We have made it clear that mental health spending can’t be put on the back burner, so it’s time for Fine Gael and their Independent colleagues to spell out their plan for mental health services”, he said at the time calling for a multi-annual plan for the the development of mental health services.
While lacking the explosiveness of other rows which have erupted between the two political parties, the mental health funding debate has continued to bubble.
In March, Fianna Fáil finance spokesperson Michael McGrath again raised the question of child and adolescent mental health services and pointed to Cork city and county, where several vacancies have arisen in critical staff positions. “This is now having a direct impact on the waiting lists and the ability of families to access services,” he said.
Unfortunately, it appears that while Fianna Fáil is determined to keep mental health funding high on the agenda, its threats around the confidence and supply agreement have clearly been empty and, perhaps at times, opportunistic.
By Juno McEnroe
After six months of the Government support pact, the biggest political dispute between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil threatened to unravel their unlikely alliance for power. And it was all over rents.
It became a personal battle between two senior figures in either party, as housing minister Simon Coveney and his counterpart in opposition, Barry Cowen, rolled up their sleeves and traded blows.
The minister, also harbouring leadership ambitions, wanted to cool the overheated rental market by introducing caps or Rent Pressure Zones (RPZs) in some areas where rates were spiralling out of control.
In contrast, Fianna Fáil worried towns not designated RPZs would see rates hiked up overnight.
This was the first big clash between the two big Dáil parties and it was very public, as tenants, landlords, buyers-in-waiting, local authorities and others watched on.
Significantly, Fianna Fail’s argument was that the introduction of rent controls was not in the confidence and supply agreement between both parties, hammered out the previous May. That only went as far as promising greater protections for tenants.
At issue for Barry Cowen and his party was the concern that the 4% rent cap was too high and that too few areas would be designated RPZs immediately.
Other cities such as Galway, Limerick and Waterford needed to be declared RPZs on top of Cork and Dublin, he warned. Cowen and his party leader Micheál Martin were also deeply frustrated at the lack of consultation over the rent changes.
Fine Gael also refused to link rent caps to the consumer price index, to limit any rate hikes.
Neither side was budging and both Coveney and Cowen stayed in the trenches, receiving strong backing from their party TDs as the dispute symbolised the first party pact punch-up.
Talks broke down at one stage between both sides, which prompted Coveney to ring the then-taoiseach Enda Kenny to secure his continued backing for the Fine Gael position.
At all times, both Cowen and Coveney wore a civilised smile and reiterated respect for each other. But almost all observers in Leinster House considered this a personal battle between the two.
This was especially so after Coveney had years earlier infamously tweeted about Barry’s brother, then Taoiseach Brian Cowen, which fired up controversy over what became known as ‘Garglegate’.
The rent row was all the more sensitive as it was feared landlords would hike up rates if the rent cap scheme was dropped by the government, a threat made by Fine Gael at one stage during the dispute.
Ultimately, Fianna Fáil abstained in the Dáil vote and the RPZ legislation was passed. It was a decisive victory for Coveney and one that boosts his Fine Gael leadership credentials.
And while Fianna Fáil opted to climb down from its opposition, there was some concessions for Cowen as it was agreed any rent caps for other areas or towns would be fast-tracked.
But the lesson from this Cowen-Coveney quarrel was that things could get out of hand quickly and all was not rosy between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. The public battle revealed how fragile the Confidence and Supply agreement really was.
Nonetheless, this was a battle worth fighting for the lead opposition party and rent is a very public issue, given the housing crisis. Party TDs both inside and outside government talked about concerned callers and constituents over the rent caps.
It is doubtful the plug would have been pulled by Martin and Cowen on the government support pact over rent controls. Instead, the outcome of the rent cap row showed Fine Gael was in fact willing to stand up to their political foes — even if it risked a major rift between both sides.
Coveney’s mettle lifted his party’s spirits and reminded Fianna Fáil who was in fact in government after several months of Kenny’s administration cowering to the opposition party.
By Elaine Loughlin
It was early August of last year when the budget ultimatums began, and Willie O’Dea in typical solo-run style demanded a €5 top-up for pensioners.
While the wily Limerick TD managed to win that battle, his colleagues in Fianna Fáil who took similar stances on areas such as education, housing, and mental health didn’t get as far and funding fell significantly short of the promises made in their deal with Fine Gael.
In the days leading up to Budget 2017, when Government miraculously managed to find an extra €300m, the confidence and supply agreement, which promised no surprises, appeared to be in tatters.
Fianna Fáil kicked and shouted, but ultimately shut up and put up when the crunch came.
Speaking in the Dáil at the time, Micheál Martin pointed to infrastructure, research, transport, industrial priorities, and many other “critical areas” where there was “no substance” in the budget. One by one, various spokespeople were trotted out to condemn budget measures, one of the most vocal being Thomas Byrne, who pointed to failures in the area of education.
Third-level funding was identified as a major issue for the party well in advance of the budget, and Fianna Fáil pushed strongly to have the recommendations of the Cassells Report implemented.
They demanded an additional €100m in third-level funding. Instead an extra €36.5m for third-level education was allocated and the Cassells Report was largely ignored and kicked down the road for further consultation.
Fianna Fáil diluted its tone and welcomed the extra funding but qualified it by stating that further investment was needed to meet demographic demands.
Fianna Fáil spokesperson on mental health, James Browne also said the Government’s proposals for mental health funding in 2017 were not satisfactory.
While the Government promised to initiate €35m in mental health spending stipulated as part of the confidence and supply agreement, it later emerged only €15m of that would be made available in 2017 — a clear breach of the agreement.
“The confidence and supply arrangement commits to fully implement ‘Vision for Change’ in the area of mental health. I want to see a multi-annual plan for how that will be done,” Mr Browne said at the time.
Mr Martin described the budgetary process and the sudden discovery of extra money as “a shambles” and said it had directly worked against “soundly-based policy and credible political debate”.
This was echoed by Fianna Fáil’s spokesman Michael McGrath who expressed anger at the late surprise.
“Every Oireachtas member was repeatedly told there would be just less than €1bn available in this budget for new measures. In the last week, this changed by 20%.
“This makes a mockery of the budgetary reform process and places opposition at a distinct disadvantage to Government in the lead-up to the budget. This must change into the future,” he said.
Mr McGrath branded the Government’s Brexit-defence packages for farmers, workers, businesses, and the tourist industry as “absolutely pathetic”. He also predicted that the €20,000 first-time home buyers’ schemes would further damage the construction sector and force more price hikes.
But almost in the same breath, both men decided to allow the budget to pass, though abstention, despite its failings.
Standing up in the Dáil, Mr Martin said the budget didn’t fully reflect the policies upon which his party had fought the General Election. But speaking out of both sides of his mouth, he claimed responsibility for influencing many of the positives in Budget 2017.
“There are items which we believe should have been addressed in this year’s budget and the handling of the process has been unacceptable — but the core redirection away from Fine Gael’s ideology has been achieved.
“Therefore we will, of course, honour our agreement concerning the budget.”
The budget was one of the first big tests and was a marker of how relations between Fine Gael and the main opposition party would go. Overall the minority Government certainly won out, albeit with some minor concessions afforded to Fianna Fáil.
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