DANIEL MCCONNELL: A whole year of the current minority Government but precious little progress

Attorney General Máire Whelan, far right, and the current cabinet of Fine Gael and Independent ministers. Picture: Colin Keegan

For the most part, this ‘new’ politics isn’t working and, contrary to popular belief, it is not Ross and the other independents who have been found wanting at the Cabinet table, writes Political Editor Daniel McConnell

IT was a scene of utter chaos.

One year ago today, minutes before the Dáil voted to re-elect Enda Kenny as Taoiseach at the fourth time of asking on May 6, 2016, several members of the would-be Government were flailing outside the chamber.

Still not ready to sign up to a deal with Fine Gael, the Independent TDs were told curtly that a vote had been called.

It was a game of chicken and Mr Kenny, and Fine Gael bet that the Independents would blink first.

Unsure if they were in or not, the likes of Shane Ross, John Halligan, Finian McGrath, Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran, and Sean Canney were pacing the corridors.

“Are you going in?” journalists asked the angsty TDs. “We don’t know, probably... maybe,” came the response.

The Independent Alliance
The Independent Alliance

Michael Fitzmaurice, the Roscommon Independent, who had been at all the talks, fell at the last minute and decided he would not go into Government.

As speeches had begun in the Dáil, Mr Fitzmaurice revealed his decision not to go in on his local radio station Shannonside.

Moments later, having been strong-armed, the current minority Government came into life in ignominious circumstances.

Its year-long existence in so many ways has been little better.

Typified by inaction, dominated by unseemly spats within Government and across the floor of the Dáil, and precious little to see by way of progress over the so-called bad old politics, it is as if we have gone from one bad extreme to another.

As we know, Mr Kenny and Mr Ross went toe to toe on several occasions in the early months.

Firstly, Mr Ross blocked Mr Kenny’s attempt to appoint former taoiseach John Bruton to a plum €270,000 a year European Investment Bank job.

Then the Independent Alliance went to war over the issue of abortion, demanding a free vote as a number of them had expressed pro-choice views in the past.

The row, due to the animosities between Mr Kenny and Mr Ross particularly, escalated quickly, and threatened to collapse the fragile minority Government.

Having won the right to have the free vote, the Independent Alliance, well Mr Ross in particular, went to war again on the issue of how judges are appointed.

Mr Ross, the arch critic of Ireland’s insider culture, demanded a new way of doing business and, despite stinging criticism from the establishment and their friends in the media, the Independents held their nerve and won a major concession from Mr Kenny and Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald.

For all of the criticism of his agenda, Mr Ross has had more success in reforming the judiciary than Ms Fitzgerald has as justice minister. She allowed the legal services bill, driven by her predecessor Alan Shatter to be gutted, in the interests of the legal eagles.

The manner in which a succession of Fine Gael ministers rounded on Mr Halligan and super junior minister Mr McGrath on their decision not to pay water charges spoke volumes. Mr Halligan, in typically blunt terms, told the very same ministers to “shut their mouths and leave Finian and me alone”.

A widely held and widely reported consensus is that Ross and Co have been found wanting in office.

I would disagree and think the Independent Alliance can be proud of their term in office so far.

Those who cannot be overjoyed by their performance are Mr Kenny and Finance Minister Michael Noonan.

Mr Kenny, try as he may, has not been able to shake off a four-year-old Garda scandal which has claimed a justice minister in Mr Shatter, a garda commissioner in Martin Callinan, and a secretary general Brian Purcell.

It was Mr Kenny’s own gaffe in January, when he manufactured a conversation with Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone in a radio interview which led to serious questions about his capacity to lead and a near mutiny in his party.

It was in the wake of his ‘mea culpa’ over the made-up conversation that talk of his departure escalated and we have been in a holding pattern ever since, awaiting his announcement on when he will go.

Enda kenny and Michael Noonan
Enda kenny and Michael Noonan

For Mr Noonan, the once great saviour of Fine Gael is now also looking as if the game is getting away from him.

It is incredible to think that he, as finance minister, now finds himself party to, or a major subject of, three separate Government-initiated Commissions of Inquiry (Nama, Siteserv, and Grace).

Mr Noonan is clearly on his last lap as a minister and was hugely influential in the previous government as a steady hand, but even some of his closest allies at the Cabinet table say his impact is waning.

Beyond the Cabinet, it has been a very mixed bag when it comes to how the Dáil itself has fared since a year ago.

There have been a small number of positives out of all of this.

Many will remember the powerful contributions to the debate on abortion, prompted by Mick Wallace’s private members bill.

Most notably was new TD Kate O’Connell’s powerful account of her child’s difficult birth.

Likewise, Denis Naughten accepted a final-stage amendment from Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, which never would have happened before.

Another positive development of the new politics was the Dáil debate on the Commission of Inquiry into the Grace foster abuse scandal.

On the night it was introduced in the Dáil by Mr McGrath, he initially sought to exclude the other 46 children and young adults who stayed in the same foster home as Grace.

But, after an extraordinary bit of lobbying by the two whistleblowers at the heart of Grace’s case and a change of heart from Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, McGrath relented and altered the terms of reference.

This U-turn followed two compelling speeches from TDs John Deasy and John McGuinness, who both had been instrumental in highlighting the foster abuse scandal.

John Deasy of Fine Gael gave a compelling speech in the Dáil highlighting the Grace foster home abuse scandal, as did John McGuiness, which led to a debate on a Commission of Inquiry. Picture: Patrick Browne
John Deasy of Fine Gael gave a compelling speech in the Dáil highlighting the Grace foster home abuse scandal, as did John McGuiness, which led to a debate on a Commission of Inquiry. Picture: Patrick Browne

Such highs, however, have been few and far between.

The Dáil is not functioning. As my colleague Elaine Loughlin pointed out last week, just 25 pieces of legislation have gone through the Dáil in the year, with half the Cabinet bringing no new bills at all.

Tough decisions on the likes of Irish Water have been fudged for pure political expedience rather than what it is in best interests of providing a world-class water system.

But it is not an isolated situation.

Abortion was long-fingered, so were third-level fees, bin charges, and others. Government support for Garda Commissioner Noírín O’Sullivan has had more to do with saving its own skin than anything else.

Also, what has become clear is that Fianna Fáil is back to their arch-populist ways — as typified by their ever changing stance on Irish Water — and have shown how it is not fit to be in power.

Just six years after being booted out of office, having wrecked this country, it would seem Fianna Fáil has learned nothing about responsibility.

Overall, to be fair, some of our elected TDs have tried to play the hand dealt to them by the electorate, it is abundantly clear it is not working and it is us, all of us, paying the price for it.


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