DANIEL MCCONNELL: Numbers no longer add up as Government unravels

Leo Varadkar, right, with Denis Naughten. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins

JUST how long can this farce continue? This is a Government struggling for life and no longer able to guarantee the passage of its legislation.

It cannot even guarantee as of now the full passage of the Budget it announced last week.

Yes, very few thought this Government would last as long as it has. Yes, despite its minority status and some noisy spats and one major crisis, it has proven to be remarkably stable.

But the events of the past week or so mean all is changed, changed utterly, to quote WB Yeats. And as such, a terrible beauty has been born.

The resignations of Fine Gael TD Peter Fitzpatrick and, more importantly, Denis Naughten from Cabinet means the Government no longer has the required numbers in the Dáil to get legislation passed.

The Government needs 57 votes to pass legislation, when Fianna Fáil abstentions are factored in.

At present, Fine Gael have 49 seats, with Katherine Zappone and the four Independent Alliance members bringing it to 54.

So far, the Government has been able to rely on the votes of Michael Lowry and ex-Independent Alliance member Seán Canney.

So from now on, others will be required to ensure business can be done.

On one level, Fitzpatrick’s departure is not that big a deal, as he had signalled he was not seeking re-election for the party next time around.

Yet, on another level, it should be setting off alarm bells about how Fine Gael is being run.

Fitzpatrick, a staunch pro-life advocate, has difficulties with the pending abortion legislation and has said his support cannot be guaranteed but overall he is a benign member of the opposition.

On his departure, Fitzpatrick said for the last 15 months of his time as a Fine Gael backbench TD “no one was listening to me, I felt isolated, like I was just there to push a button”.

It is clear that some feel that a lack of tending to the backbenches, which Leo Varadkar was famed for before he became leader, has led to Fitzpatrick crying foul about being isolated and dismissed by his party superiors.

But the stunning departure of Naughten at 3.05pm on Thursday has engulfed the Government into a genuine existential crisis.

The manner of his resignation caused genuine shock in the Dáil chamber, and related to his interactions with David McCourt, the head of the consortium bidding for Ireland’s rural broadband contract.

Reports from Peter O’Dwyer of The Times Ireland in recent weeks had highlighted Naughten’s attendance at a dinner in New York where he met McCourt. But fresh revelations in recent days heaped more pressure on him and he was summoned to meet the Taoiseach, who was demanding answers.

“I am absolutely satisfied there has been no interference in the procurement process by me.

“The political and media frenzy in the last week has been deeply unhelpful,” he pleaded in the Dáil.

With clear emotion in his voice and visibly angry at being pushed, Naughten vented his fury.

“I met with the Taoiseach last night and earlier today offered the following to allay the concerns of the opposition about some of the issues that arose recently. This comprised a confidential briefing by senior members of the procurement team, including the project sponsor, programme director, chief technology officer, and the process auditor to the opposition spokespeople.

“The secretary general of the department will write to the opposition spokespeople in this regard; a review perhaps by a former secretary general of my role, if any, in the NBP procurement and to address, if there is a concern among the opposition, that I would in any way second-guess the outcome of an independent process recommended to me; and the assignment of responsibility for the NBP procurement to minister of state at the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Kyne, who already has responsibility for a number of functions in the communications area, or to another Cabinet-level minister.

“This was not accepted by An Taoiseach, who asked me to reflect on my position. It is clear to me, therefore, that the Taoiseach does not have confidence in me. That confidence does not exist,” he said. “For my family, for my constituents, and more importantly for the 1.1m people who are waiting for this essential service, a vital service for ordinary people in rural Ireland, I have given An Taoiseach my resignation,” he said, before sharply leaving the chamber, leaving the Opposition in shock.

For a short while, the Opposition cried foul at the Taoiseach for doing a good man down.

But when Varadkar had his turn to give his side of the story, he did so convincingly. In less than six minutes, he had shredded Naughten’s credibility by revealing the extent of the contact his former minister had had with David McCourt.

The Taoiseach set out a convincing set of interactions whereby Naughten’s story kept changing, whereby six meetings in total were disclosed, including some private dinners in McCourt’s home.

The Taoiseach said Naughten told him on Thursday morning that “he had at least three other private dinners with Mr McCourt” of which there was no record.

“He had not informed me of these additional meetings either when we met yesterday or when we spoke last night,” the Taoiseach said.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and former Communications Minister Denis Naughten share a joke at the Government Open Policy Debate on Digital Safety in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, Dublin last March. Picture: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and former Communications Minister Denis Naughten share a joke at the Government Open Policy Debate on Digital Safety in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, Dublin last March. Picture: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

He said he had no doubt the minister’s intentions were honourable “but he left himself open to allegations of a conflict of interest”.

“Ultimately as minister he had a decision-making role. It would have been his responsibility to bring to Cabinet the memo to gain the approval of Government for the awarding of any contract.

“As a result of this, I asked him to reflect on his position. He asked that he be allowed to explain his position to the Dáil. I have since received his resignation in writing and I have accepted it,” the Taoiseach said.

Far from being ruthless, Varadkar was left with no option because of Naughten’s poor judgement. The failure to offer full disclosure when Peter O’Dwyer’s stories first surfaced was a colossal lapse in judgement.

With the end of the Confidence and Supply upon us, the Government, now deeply unstable, is unravelling before our eyes.

While much of the attention is on the dynamic between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, the marked unhappiness of the Independent Alliance, royally shafted by their Blueshirt colleagues, complicates the picture even further.

An election this side of Christmas remains a strong possibility, but this weekend will determine a lot, and perhaps much of the febrile atmosphere will fade in the coming days.

Fianna Fáil appears content to allow Varadkar to attend the EU summit in Brussels next week, but beyond that there are no promises.

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