Not a single piece of new legislation has been passed by the ‘Do Nothing Dáil’. Enda Kenny is simply presiding over a listless Government, writes Political Editor Daniel McConnell
Enda Kenny looks tired. The bags under the eyes have grown more pronounced; his legendary energy and enthusiasm have visibly waned in recent weeks.
The end of the Dáil term could not have come any sooner for a man who has had a year to forget, but yet clings on to power as head of a Government which has as much potency and power as a eunuch.
On RTÉ radio on Wednesday, the spirited junior minister Michael Ring was speaking about the delays in setting up a Government earlier this year, but concluded: “At least we now have a Government.”
Ring, one of the Dáil’s genuine characters, is never afraid to speak his mind or make life difficult for Kenny, his party leader and constituency colleague.
But, as the Dáil rises for an extended summer break, it has to be asked: What good is a Government that can’t get anything done? And how long can this farce actually last, given how little is getting done?
The collective sigh of relief from departing TDs and senators from Leinster House yesterday was palpable.
It has been a gruelling and frustrating term since the Government was finally formed after the general election, and the toll of the year has been visible in the wrinkles and furrowed brows.
The Government, which is reliant on Fianna Fáil to survive, has achieved very little since forming and has been engulfed in nasty and often very personalised squabbles between Fine Gael ministers and their Independent colleagues.
This “Do Nothing Dáil”, as described to me by Labour leader Brendan Howlin, has not passed a single piece of new legislation since it formed on May 6.
President Michael D Higgins has not had to get his pen out once to sign any bills into law.
Just nine new bills have been commenced in that time, with the most noticeable one the Water Services Bill which brought about the suspension of water charges.
According to the party whips, that figure of nine is a fraction of what would normally go through the Dáil in a term.
In addition to the failure to bring forward new laws, which is the primary function of the parliament, what this term has shown us is that many of the tough issues facing the Government have been kicked to touch, long-fingered, or simply dropped altogether.
I mentioned water charges, which was a condition of Fianna Fáil’s support — they have been suspended for at least nine months.
I say ‘at least’ because a Dáil vote is required to reintroduce the charges and the current make-up of the Oireachtas means that it cannot and will not happen anytime soon.
While the EU is willing to hold its nose at the current situation, sooner or later, Ireland stands to be fined should those water charges remain suspended.
That is simply the tip of the iceberg and a host of crucial issues have been long-fingered to avoid the chances of the Government falling.
Under pressure, Housing Minister Simon Coveney was forced to freeze bin charges for at least 12 months, after it emerged homeowners were facing major increases in their bills in a proposed move to a pay-by-weight system.
Coveney said that while the freeze is in place for at least 12 months, if he feels the public is not ready for the system come June 2017, then the freeze will continue beyond that.
This week, Kenny was pressed about the failure to adequately fund the third-level sector, which has been the subject of the recent Cassells report.
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin asked Kenny whether he accepted Cassells’ recommendations and whether he would commit to increasing the funding for our universities, as called for in the report.
Kenny stopped well short of accepting the report and informed the Dáil that the matter is to be debated and explored by the Oireachtas education committee, which is likely to take at least 12 months to conclude its work.
But the most obvious issue which has been put on the long finger is the hot topic of abortion.
Fine Gael, before the election, committed to holding a citizens’ assembly to discuss a referendum on repealing the 1983 Eighth Amendment.
That was all grand until Independent TD Mick Wallace’s bill, to allow abortions in the cases of fatal foetal abnormalities, rape, and incest, was selected for debate two weeks ago.
Two weeks of embittered wrangling between Fine Gael and the Independents brought the fragile coalition to the brink of collapse. It brought Attorney General Máire Whelan into a political row over the standing of her advice and left her embarrassed and weakened. It ultimately forced the Taoiseach to back down and grant a free vote to the Independents of the minority Government — Shane Ross, John Halligan, and Finian McGrath — which left his authority greatly diminished.
For many, the delaying tactic of the citizens’ assembly is a bridge too far and it called into question Kenny’s ability to lead and the ability of his Government to get anything done.
“Of course anything contentious is being kicked down the road, Kenny needs breathing room after a bruising year. The election wounded him and he has neither the stomach nor the energy for the fight now,” said one minister.
Kenny’s future came into sharp focus two weeks ago as a small but vocal minority of his own TDs openly called on him to outline his timeline for stepping down. He didn’t and is insisting he will remain in place right up until the next election.
This is simply not going to happen and yesterday we saw Minister Leo Varadkar effectively launch his bid to become Kenny’s successor with his radical plan to link social welfare payments to the consumer price index.
This, done without any discussions with his Cabinet colleagues, is just the latest example of Varadkar’s willingness to shoot from the hip. Such a trait is lauded by his fanclub of young Fine Gael TDs, but will it be enough to secure him the top job? That is less clear.
While it has been a bad term for Enda Kenny, it has been a good term for Brendan Howlin. Installed as Labour leader, in somewhat messy circumstances given Alan Kelly’s unhappiness at the lack of a contest, Howlin and Labour have begun the road back from the edge of despair.
With Fianna Fáil essentially in Government and Sinn Féin and the other hard-left groups in total oppositionist mode, Howlin and Labour have struck a credible tone in holding the Government to account.
Howlin, as a senior minister in the previous government, speaks with authority on most matters and his party will surely recover some of the lost ground as we look to the next election.
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