Dáil business: ‘Normality’ resumes - of a very different hue
Power shift: Sinn Féin set to claim that Fianna Fáil is not really in opposition at all
Taoiseach Enda Kenny is about to re-embark on business in the Dáil, but the circumstances of his new Government are beyond unusual. File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
As the minority Government faces its first week of Dáil business since its formation, the focus among many politicians is on the remaining jobs that Taoiseach Enda Kenny has in his gift to dispense.
The appointment of ministers of State is expected later this week. That will be followed by the Taoiseach’s 11 nominees to the Seanad and the appointment of chairs of the Oireachtas committees, though because of changes likely to be introduced as part of the Dáil reform process, committee chairs are no longer the preserve of the government parties, but will be allocated proportionate to Dáil representation.
The Dáil’s leas Ceann Comhairle is also likely to be chosen this week.
However, while speculation about jobs always engulfs Leinster House at these times, today’s proceedings will signal something much more important: a shift in the power relationship between the Dáil and the Government.
In the weeks since the general election, the Dáil has basically been in a holding pattern.
In between votes for taoiseach – its principal responsibility – the Dáil heard statements on a series of issues.
These were intended to give TDs something to do, and were arranged by agreement with all parties or, on the occasions when that failed, with the support of Fianna Fáil.
But that period ends today. Normal parliamentary business returns for the first time since before the election. Except in many respects, it will not be normal at all. It will be very different.
Today, Fianna Fáil will table a Private Members’ Bill about mortgage interest rates, which seeks to grant powers to the Central Bank to cap interest rates for variable rates customers in the commercial banks.
The Government will either accept the Bill, or oppose it and suffer its first parliamentary defeat – most likely, the first of many. If Fine Gael does accept it, it will not be because it wants to, or supports the measures included in the Bill, but because it doesn’t have the majority in the Dáil to defeat it.
The Government will probably try to kill the Bill when it comes to committee, probably after the summer – but Fine Gael does not have a majority there either. Instead, the Government will have to muster the votes from Labour, Independents and smaller parties to defeat the Bill, or it will have to make its peace with having policy – with which it disagrees – legislated for.
That has not happened to a government before.
The lack of a majority for the Government will quickly become the most obvious characteristic of the 32nd Dáil.
As will become apparent today, the Government will not be able to order the business of the House without securing the agreement from some of the opposition parties.
And while its most obvious allies are in Fianna Fáil, that party, insiders say, will be careful not to agree with the Government too much, lest that would add credence to the inevitable attacks from Sinn Féin and others.
Their accusations that Fianna Fáil is not really in opposition at all will be heard today, and many times in the future.
New standing orders arising from the recommendations of the committee on Dáil reform are expected to be discussed and adopted on Thursday. They will reflect the acceptance by all parties of the need to rebalance the Dáil’s rules to acknowledge the changed arithmetic, and the need to reduce the power of the Government.
Extensive consultation and co-operation will also be necessary between the whips from the various parties and groups, if the Dáil is to do its work with any degree of efficiency.
The basic dynamic of the Dáil will still be the contending of government and opposition, but while Sinn Féin, the small left-wing parties and many of the Independent TDs will be trying to bring down the Government, Fianna Fáil will be trying to defeat it, rather than destroy it.
The Dáil will no longer be two-sided: it will instead be a curious parliamentary triangle.
For both big parties, the situation is beyond unusual. To smooth the passage into the new era of minority government, the two parties have a “no surprises” agreement. “How is it going work?” asks a senior figure who will be central to making it work. “Sure we have no idea.”