The big political issues facings TDs as they return from summer break

The new Dáil term starts today and political reporter Fiachra Ó Cionnaith highlights some highly divisive issues that are waiting in the wings.

Forget ‘Eastenders’, ‘Fair City’ or even ‘Red Rock’.

Back after less than popular demand, Ireland’s most complex, confusing, and at times just plain infuriating drama will return to the small screen today as the Dáil comes back from its 10-week summer sojourn.

Refreshed and insistent, the era of ‘new politics’ will finally settle down into something resembling a functioning parliament.

After a rather rocky first few months, TDs are ready to get down to serious business.

But in order to do so, they will have to overcome a series of potential stumbling blocks waiting around the corner, and more than a few others lurking in the shadows.

The budget, Brexit, water charges, industrial disputes, and a highly divisive abortion row are all bearing down on a Dáil which, whether it wants to or not, will have to start addressing the potentially career-ending controversies.

And that’s even before the futures of Taoiseach Enda Kenny, John Halligan and Fianna Fáil are discussed...

The budget

With just €1bn to fund increased public spending and tax cuts, Finance Minister Michael Noonan is under pressure to ensure the October 11 budget delivers. And in the era of new politics, that means not only for the country but for his own party.

While it is generally accepted USC will be cut for low to middle earners and a deal for first-time home buyers will be agreed, there is a political dogfight right now in terms of which areas, and parties, will benefit most.

The big political issues facings TDs as they return from summer break

Fine Gael is focused on the ‘squeezed middle’, but Fianna Fáil wants to prioritise old and young voters through pension and education spending.

Coupled with unaligned Independent minister Katherine Zappone seeking childcare supports specifically for the worst off in society, and the budgetary balancing act difficulty becomes apparent.

“Lots of inputs”, is how Mr Noonan described the situation yesterday. And if it’s not managed properly, lots of problems too.

Water charges

The issue that won’t go away, no matter how many independent commissions you throw at it.

A water charge protest taking place last year
A water charge protest taking place last year

While Fine Gael is continuing to back charges, Fianna Fáil’s alleged U-turn on whether it wants to suspend the fees or remove them completely has guaranteed the issue will again dominate, with Sinn Féin tabling a motion for tomorrow designed to increase pressure on Micheál Martin’s party. Outside of the Dáil bubble’s political games, the independent water commission’s report in November will also recommend whether to scrap, change or reintroduce water charges — with any decision to be ratified by TDs who have until now tried to pass the buck, risking an expensive legal battle with the EU.

The Eighth Amendment

As Saturday’s pro-choice march and the pro-life information demonstration shows, four years after the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar abortion remains an issue politicians are increasingly under pressure to address.

Next month, the matter will come under the intense Dáil spotlight as Socialist TD Ruth Coppinger launches a bill to remove the amendment and allow abortions to take place legally in Ireland.

While Fine Gael and its government colleagues want the new Citizens’ Assembly — which begins next month and will announce its conclusions next year — to address the issue, for left-wing opposition parties the move is little more than a delaying tactic, with the stand-off likely to be central to future opposition attacks against pro-choice campaigner and unaligned Independent Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone.

Brexit

The Government understandably remains on high alert as to the impact of any fallout from our closest neighbour’s decision to leave the EU, a move set to be formalised early next year.

The big political issues facings TDs as they return from summer break

In repeated statements on the matter, Taoiseach Enda Kenny has outlined the concerns by stressing to fellow EU heads of state that Ireland’s special relationship with Britain must ensure no hard border is imposed with Northern Ireland and that this country’s industries are protected from any Brexit- related difficulties.

While Sinn Féin’s calls for a united Ireland vote due to the fact Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU have led to half-hearted responses from Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, in truth all parties will be focused on ensuring Brexit does not damage our still-fragile economic recovery.

Industrial disputes

Despite some progress on the Dublin Bus dispute, a winter of industrial discontent may still be looming due to difficulties in Bus Éireann and Iarnród Éireann.

The big political issues facings TDs as they return from summer break

Bus Éireann and Iarnród Éireann workers have in recent days hit out at feared pay and condition reductions due to revelations the company may next month separate its Expressway operation from the firm, which is said to be losing €500,000 a month, while the latter’s employees are also seeking pay increases.

With Fianna Fáil transport spokesperson Robert Troy making it clear on Sunday he will not support the Bus Éireann plan, Transport Minister Shane Ross may come under pressure in the coming weeks to rethink his insistence he will not be a “sugar daddy” to resolve transport industry disputes.

Motor tax, health, and education

You cannot expect politicians to pass up an opportunity to speak in the Dáil without raising genuine issues, which will just happen to also help win over voters, and this Dáil term will be no different.

Motor tax insurance hikes, the ongoing crisis in the health service and the fallout on how to respond to the Cassells report into third-level education funding will guarantee more than a few opposition-inspired awkward reality checks for cabinet ministers.

Due to the tight numbers involved in the minority government’s make-up, any and every one of these issues now poses a potential risk to the Coalition if it manages to cause further factions to emerge in the Cabinet.

Nama and other State investigations

The rarely stated fact about kicking cans down roads is that, eventually, you run out of road. And while it is not quite there yet, the Government should be increasingly aware the time is fast approaching when its clutter of booted cans needs to be picked up and addressed.

The big political issues facings TDs as they return from summer break

Before Christmas, the Coalition will face further questions on the Nama Project Eagle controversy, and calls for a state investigation into alleged foster abuse in the South-East; Siteserv; the Olympics ticket-touting saga; and other matters.

Coupled with a PAC inquiry into Project Eagle which will include tough questions for Finance Minister Michael Noonan this week, expect fireworks whenever state investigations are raised.

Enda Kenny, John Halligan, and Fianna Fáil waiting in the wings

Despite other issues, the big question facing the new Dáil remains the future of Enda Kenny.

While the Taoiseach last week all but said he will remain in power until 2018, the decision is unlikely to sit comfortably with ambitious ministerial colleagues and disgruntled backbenchers.

John Halligan
John Halligan

The situation continues to risk Government’s stability, as does the increasingly obvious problems between Independent Alliance TD John Halligan and Fine Gael.

While Fianna Fáil continues to insist it has no intention of bringing down the Government on any of the hurdles facing the new Dáil term, at least not yet, the departure of either the Taoiseach or the Waterford TD could yet lead to yet another political plot twist in the months to come.


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