Minority report: Government’s first 100 days in office

Cabinet split, external shocks, and leadership question have shown administration’s fragility

Enda Kenny has recovered some of his brio during the first 100 days, but it is an open question whether he will still head it after another 100.  Photograph: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

Enda Kenny has recovered some of his brio during the first 100 days, but it is an open question whether he will still head it after another 100. Photograph: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

 

Fourth time is a charm, joked Noel Rock. It was May 6th, and the young Fine Gael TD had been asked on three other occasions since the February election to nominate Enda Kenny as Taoiseach.

This was his fourth, and it almost ended in disaster. As the Finglas TD rose to nominate Kenny, Shane Ross and his independent colleagues were still in a room in Government Buildings being cajoled by Michael Noonan.

Throughout the morning and afternoon, there was frantic to-ing and fro-ing across the glass bridge connecting Government Buildings and the Leinster House. With Dáil proceedings already under way, speakers were allowed to talk on for as long as they liked, while Noonan sought desperately to convince the Independents to come on board. Roscommon-Galway TD Michael Fitzmaurice was holding out for the cause of the turf cutters .

In the chamber, opposition TDs railed against the Government before it was formed at all; had they realised what was going on behind closed doors, they could simply have sat down, shut up, and forced a vote.

Had they done so, Kenny wouldn’t have had the numbers. He would have had to travel to Áras an Uachtaráin not for a seal of office, but to seek a dissolution of the Dáil.

When the vote was eventually taken, Enda Kenny secured 59 votes – just one more than the bare majority with a Fianna Fáil abstention. It was hardly the most auspicious of starts.

Remarkable feat

Putting together a second administration had been a remarkable feat of negotiation and politics, given the result of the general election 70 days previously. Fine Gael had lost 25 seats and the Labour Party, its former coalition partner, had been decimated.

The post-election Dáil arithmetic suggested a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil coalition was the only conventional option to provide a stable government, and there was a strong expectation in many quarters that after a period of ritualistic shape-throwing, the two old enemies would accept the inevitable and make one final, great compromise.

The predictions failed to take into account two important factors: the feeling within Fianna Fáil (the organisation was resolutely against such an outcome), and the attitude of party leader Micheál Martin, who was disinclined to try to change their minds.

The Taoiseach’s “big open” offer to Fianna Fáil never got off the ground.

Yet Kenny manoeuvred Fine Gael back into government with a greater number of cabinet seats than the party had previously held, and occupying the commanding heights of the Department of Finance and the Department of Public Expenditure.

He hadn’t so much clinched a deal with the Independents, as worn them down through sheer persistence. Through a process of lengthy negotiation, artful positioning and simply giving the Independents most of what they wanted – within reason – Kenny gradually boxed them into a corner.

The failure of the Fine Gael campaign in the election itself remains substantially unexamined, beyond a catalogue of complaints about misreading the mood of the public.

As one minister told The Irish Times recently, we fought the election on our chosen ground of the economy; the trouble is, we lost the argument. Nobody seems much the wiser about why the electorate rejected that argument, despite its fundamental importance to how electoral politics is likely to work in the future.

Nearly all the Independents who supported Enda Kenny were given ministerial jobs or the promise of them, and a large amount of what they wanted in policy terms. The Programme for Government even contained a commitment to re-examine the case for the Western Rail Corridor – long a subject guaranteed to have Dublin-based mandarins throwing their eyes to heaven and pointing out it would be cheaper to hire a taxi for every passenger. But it was in, and so were a lot of other things.

Some Independents saw the opportunity coming and grasped it when it did. Finian McGrath in particular had prepared for the negotiations with the experience of someone who had watched the application of power from the outside all this political life. He knew what he wanted, and was perfectly comfortable with the compromises. He, Denis Naughten and Katherine Zappone settled in immediately to their departments.

Shane Ross had spotted, perhaps before anyone, the possibility that the independents could be in this position. He had strategised on how to get to power; he seemed less sure what he wanted to do with it when he got there. He has yet to make any distinctive policy move.

Waterford TD and Junior Minister John Halligan seemed uncomfortable in these surroundings from the start.

Different

It quickly became clear that things would be different in the 32rd Dáil. Within a fortnight of taking office, the Government had agreed not to challenge a Fianna Fáil private members bill which sought to give the Central Bank power to compel banks to lower their interest rates – powers the bank publicly didn’t want. But that didn’t matter; the point was to demonstrate to the Government that it could no longer get its way. Fianna Fáil had promised to support Fine Gael on votes of confidence and money supply. Outside of that, it could and would push the Government around a bit.

The Government frequently can’t get its way in the Dáil. That remains the single biggest change to Irish politics since the election. Insofar as “new Politics” means anything, that is what it means.

The settling-in period for the new government took place against a background of a violent feud on Dublin streets between two rival crime gangs.

At the same time, the Garda Commissioner, Nóirín O’Sullivan, found herself under near-fatal pressure following the publication of another report into Garda malpractice, this time in the Cavan-Monaghan district. Judge Kevin O’Higgins’s report vindicated many of the complaints made by the Garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe, but leaks of the evidence suggested O’Sullivan’s lawyers had sought to undermine his credibility.

Noticeable was the clear distance that the Government – especially Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald – sought to put between it and the embattled Commissioner in the early days of the controversy. The reaction of most people in Government was: another Garda mess. Let them get themselves out of it. We’ve got enough on our plates.

Defining challenge

The Government was exactly seven weeks in office when what is likely to be its defining challenge arrived. The Taoiseach was up early, already watching the results on television when his officials called to inform him on the unfolding drama in London. The UK had voted to leave the European Union.

For many Irish Government officials, the unthinkable was happening. For months they had been drawing up plans for how to act in the event of a Brexit vote – though few truly believed a Leave vote was likely.

Now, events unfolded quickly. Even before an emergency meeting of the Irish cabinet took place at Government Buildings, the British prime minister David Cameron had resigned in front of number 10 Downing Street.

Sterling nose-dived, and at a stroke, the global and European economy was thrown into deep uncertainty. As Kenny repeatedly said, Ireland was in the front line.

Meetings of top officials and ministers were quickly assembled, papers drawn up and dusted off. Like the rest of the world – including the UK itself – Ireland had no idea what sort of Brexit its nearest neighbour would seek. That is not yet clear.

But within days, a clear Irish strategy had emerged, as well as a chief tactic to pursue it. Ireland’s principal interests – as identified by the Taoiseach, his ministers and chief officials – lay in three related areas: maintenance of the common travel area between Ireland and the UK; keeping an open Border between the Republic and the North; and protecting the billion euros a week of trade between the two countries.

Underpinning all these was the need above all else to protect the peace process. This became the main tactical message Ireland conveyed to other EU countries, most of whom were impatient to see Britain out of the EU as soon as possible.

A diplomatic and political campaign to press Ireland’s unique position swung into operation, with the message conveyed in person to the German chancellor Angela Merkel and the French president François Hollande, who visited Dublin in mid-July.

The British, still working out exactly what they want from the EU, were nonetheless of one mind with the Irish Government in what they wanted in Northern Ireland: as near to the status quo as they could manage. Achieving that will require some astute diplomacy and hard politics in the months and years ahead. The position is inherently precarious. Perched between its two most important political and economic partners, who are now going their separate ways, Ireland is as well-positioned now as it could be. However long this Government lasts, Brexit will define the rest of its life.

Worst week

In early July the Government entered the worst week of its life – so far.

Northern First Minister Arlene Foster, apparently irritated that a plan had not been flagged to her beforehand, dismissed out of hand a suggestion by Kenny that an all-Ireland forum be convened to consider the best response to the Brexit decision.

Then Joe O’Toole, a longtime senator and Into leader, was forced to resign as chair of the new forum to consider the future of water charges after he declared himself to be in favour of them. It was a curious stumble for a political old hand, and he at first refused to go. But when Fianna Fáil gave the thumbs-down signal, his position became untenable.

This came as the Cabinet was in the throes of its worst split so far. Independent ministers refused to accept the Attorney General’s advice that a private members bill proposed by Mick Wallace TD, seeking to allow abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities, was unconstitutional.

Junior Minister John Halligan told the Dáil he “didn’t care” if the bill was unconstitutional; he would vote for it anyway. Shane Ross said that collective Cabinet authority – the legal and constitutional doctrine that the Government of the land should act as a unit – shouldn’t necessarily apply in such circumstances.

If Halligan’s stance was constitutionally reckless, Ross’s was constitutionally illiterate. To the horror of Fine Gael, Ministers put the primacy of their own consciences above such niceties.

The Government’s decision to establish a citizens’ assembly to discuss the future of the eighth (anti-abortion) amendment to the constitution cut no ice with them.

After the two most difficult Cabinet meetings so far – Ministers watched aghast as Ross rejected the Attorney General’s advice while she sat in silence – Kenny decided not to force the idea that the Government must act as a single authority on this issue. Unable to reach agreement on a position, the cabinet agreed not to take one. The bill was defeated, but the episode continues as a festering sore between the Independent Alliance ministers and Fine Gael.

Encouraged, the opposition will launch another bill in the autumn.

At the following day’s Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting, Enda Kenny shocked his TDs by announcing that James Reilly – a figure of little authority or popularity in the party – would be re-appointed as deputy leader.

Nothing excites politicians’ passions more than jobs; the meeting, until then quiescent, became suddenly obstreperous. Backbench TDs voiced stinging criticisms of the leadership. News leaked fast. Fine Gael was still coming to terms with this mini-revolt the following morning when it learned that the first Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll since the election showed Fianna Fáil surging ahead.

Kenny’s leadership

Over the following days, criticism of Kenny’s failure to manage his Government intensified into calls for him to consider when he should step down. A line had been crossed. Kenny’s leadership was once again on the agenda.

Though it was prompted more by the unfortunate coincidence of events than any organised conspiracy, Fine Gael’s public deliberation of its leader’s future revealed that the party was a good deal further along in the psychology of changing leader than had previously been recognised.

Even middle-ground TDs were talking about when, not if, Kenny would go. Politics can be an unsentimental business, and Fine Gael is already looking beyond Enda Kenny. All hope for an organised and efficient transition, though that is seldom the way these things work.

Kenny has recovered some of his brio during his Government’s first 100 days, and his leadership on the crucial issue of Brexit has been strong and effective; but it is an open question whether he will still head it after another 100.

The Fine Gael leadership contest is already under way at a subterranean level. Simon Coveney is likely to be one protagonist (faced by Leo Varadkar, and perhaps Frances Fitzgerald).

Can Coveney win? By his own account, he sought the job of housing minister in the new Government. On July 20th, the Minister produced the Government’s housing strategy, a comprehensive plan to fix the problems in the housing market and jump-start much-needed housebuilding activity.

Coveney is a person of serious intent and earnest endeavour, and his plan was greeted with enthusiasm by most stakeholders, including those who work with the homeless. However, with promises and benchmarks for new homes built and homeless families housed, he has hung a political target around his neck if the plan fails to achieve its objectives.

The housing plan had a wider significance for the administration, though. It was the first real sign of the machinery of Government getting into gear.

The first 100 days have provided ample evidence of internal divisions and of parliamentary powerlessness; there are reasonable doubts about this Government’s capacity to run the country effectively.

Ministers have been criticised for the low number of Bills enacted (the new Dáil and Seanad passed just eight pieces of legislation before the summer recess), but pointed out in defence that there were no guillotines, a prominent feature of the previous Dáil.

One of the most significant Bills enacted and which comes into force from September, is the Paternity Leave and Benefit Act, which provides for two weeks paid paternity leave for new fathers. One of the most controversial and described as “kick the can down the road legislation”, is the Water Services (Amendment) Act, which suspends billing for domestic water charges for nine months. Justice legislation includes the Proceeds of Crime (Amendment) Bill, allowing the Criminal Assets Bureau greater powers to seize property.

Amid such limited legislative activity, it is often asked whether this Government can actually do anything. The implementation of the housing strategy will be a clear test of that, as will the forthcoming budget.

But for all the internal instability of the first 100 days, it is outside forces and events which have been the most startling, and the most threatening to the stability of this regime.

The biggest developments since the Government took office have been external: Brexit, the rise of Donald Trump and his potential presidency, and the proliferation of Islamist terror attacks in Europe. Any of these could affect Ireland in dramatic and unforeseen ways.

If doubts remain about the stability of the current Government, they seem trifling compared with the great uncertainties and threats the world faces in summer 2016.

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