The Dáil in session is a major platform for the opposition, which otherwise struggles for advantage over the Government, writes Gerard Howlin.

THE Dáil returned after the Easter recess yesterday.

Whatever the reality out here, life in there is measured in sessions, like seasons.

Government and opposition aim to deliver on messages that resonate. Come the next recess, the intention is to be better placed, with momentum captured. Eventually, there is another election, and then the cycle resumes.

The Dáil in session is a major platform for the opposition, which otherwise struggles for advantage over the Government. It’s a pressure point for government and the administrative system which supports it. The Taoiseach especially is at the receiving end of questions daily. Ministers less so, but they can be called to account in special debates or in committee reasonably readily. Critically, parts of the civil service are somewhere in between, hemmed in and bogged down in dealing with the demand for parliamentary accountability. All the more opportunity then, to put the Government in the crosshairs, probe weakness and give every opportunity to cock-up.

Micheál Martin shuffled his spokespersons in the frontline jobs of health, Brexit and housing during the recess. Brexit spokesman, Stephen Donnelly, went to health; defence spokeswoman, Lisa Chambers, went to Brexit; Darragh O’Brien went from foreign affairs to housing.

There was a bit more to it, in a limited reshuffle. But the gist of the thing was about capturing momentum on health and housing, and being placed to pounce if Leo Varadkar is forced as Martin thinks he will, into a Dunkirk-style evacuation of his emphatic claim of a cast-iron backstop on Brexit.

The Fianna Fáil thinking is that the sound caused by the bang of the door when the British leave, will be our backstop being flat-packed for future use as a border post. Continental Europeans in the national capitals will unsurprisingly put their interests before ours, and insist that something less open on the border than was cast iron guaranteed in December, is the best they can do in the circumstances if Britain is not to crash out of the EU with no deal at all.

Micheál Martin
Micheál Martin

Real concern on this was pointed to by Tánaiste Simon Coveney when he said on Monday: “We are, I think, putting down a marker which says that if there isn’t significant progress towards trying to find new wording that puts in place an operational backstop in the withdrawal treaty by June, then I think we’d have to ask some very serious questions as to whether it’s possible to do it by October — which is the end point when we are hoping to have a draft withdrawal treaty in place.”

The Government took the least worst option last February and facilitated progress to Phase II of the Brexit talks. But as the Tánaiste has effectively admitted, turning last December’s fudge into fact, is alchemy that has thus far failed. So there it is. One key issue that will ripen during this session.

Another litmus test is abortion. The referendum is set for six weeks from next Friday. There are big stakes involved politically, not to mention that arguably this is more important for the substance of the sort of society we are than any other issue.

Being male and stale in a curmudgeonly way that is instinctively wary of being gathered up into movements, or indeed enthusiasms of any sort, I simply can’t sense a momentum gathering around repeal, comparable to equal marriage. That does not mean the cause is lost. The status quo doesn’t command a majority. The test for repeal over retain, is to shore up enough of their initial support and to turn it out on the day. Retainers, have to raise a reasonable doubt in the minds of enough people who are not on the same page or even reading from the same book ideologically as that those actually driving the retain campaign. Their challenge is to contain their ardour. Repealers must enthuse and turnout the lukewarm.

My sense is that if the Eighth Amendment is repealed, there will be a lengthy parliamentary process to put in place consequent legislation, but defeat will be a different matter. Governments have embarrassingly lost referenda before, and it didn’t fundamentally alter their standing or change underlying momentum.

This may be different, however. The Eighth Amendment is a decades-old totemic issue. It’s a signifier. If the campaign to repeal loses, there will be real issues for the Government among some, who are part of its base support. On the other side of the planet, defeat will raise questions in Fianna Fáil for Micheál Martin.

New session but some old issues will frame the next election

In that quest for momentum, his new housing spokesman, Darragh O’Brien, hit the ground with accusations that made sparks fly. While the homeless increase in number and the aspiring in work are reclassified as generation rent, O’Brien spoke of a Taoiseach who is “too elitist and arrogant” and “not being part of the people”.

It’s too soon to say what the market is for that sort of attack, but it commanded space for a time.

Tellingly, yesterday on RTÉ’s News at One before dismissing O’Brien as having nothing of substance to say, the Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy, referred to a subset of landlords as “criminals”.

On top of new protections for tenants agreed at Government yesterday, there will eventually be other legislation criminalising slum landlords who crowd people illegally into modern tenements.

There is a market, you see, for being on the side of the people. This is both a policy issue of substance and the sort of signifier that is both base and basic politics.

Finding an unaccountable elite and defining yourself as a crusading champion against it, is key. Criminal landlords and elitist Taoisigh are tools of that trade.

The Government wants to go into the summer recess with the Eighth Amendment repealed, the Brexit backstop substantiated in legal text that will then be agreed in the autumn, and at least some light at the end of the tunnel on housing.

ON HEALTH, respite is probably all that can be hoped for. It will want to spend the summer forming in outline a budget that show cause with those working, but who in terms of childcare costs, private medical insurance and even the hope of a house on some terms, even if not in the future outright ownership and who feel now they are bearing too much of a burden.

This is not Fine Gael’s core constituency, thence the reason for the charge of elitism. They are, however, a group some of whom must be persuaded to vote Fine Gael if the party is to be in poll position in the next Dáil.

Words matter. Name-calling can hit a target or backfire. It’s done because if you succeed in naming your opponent, without throwing muck that subsequently turns out to have been the ground beneath your own feet, you have framed the debate.

I don’t believe there will be an election this year but the issues that crystallise between now and July will probably subsequently frame one when it comes.

The Dáil in session is a major platform for the opposition, which otherwise struggles for advantage over the Government


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