Gaffes, rows and reversals: Government’s shaky start keeps going

From Barry Cowen to ministerial pay, the Coalition has had more than a few wobbles

Large clusters of parliamentarians are disaffected, for a variety of reasons, with Taoiseach Micheál Martin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

Large clusters of parliamentarians are disaffected, for a variety of reasons, with Taoiseach Micheál Martin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

 

If you Google “shaky start” and “Irish politics”, the inevitable dates crop up: 1997; 2011; 2017; and 2020. What unites them is this: new governments and leader trying to find their feet, only to put them in their mouths.

Take 1997, for example. Relatively new Fianna Fáil leader Bertie Ahern managed a surprise general election victory. Soon afterwards, the scandal broke about his foreign minister Ray Burke’s graft.

Within months, Burke was gone and there were question marks about the future of the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats coalition, and creeping doubts about Ahern. He lasted nearly a decade.

Fast forward to 2011. Enda Kenny was the leader who won power though nobody had rated him. He sailed through his first few months. Labour’s Eamon Gilmore was under fire from the off.

Leo Varadkar, when he took over from Kenny, soon flew into turbulent air with a controversy that led to the resignation of his tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald.

If truth be told, most governments have shaky starts, shaky middles and very shaky ends. But the start for this one has been particularly wobbly.

The launch of the stimulus plan last week and the roadmap to reopening schools this week were pluses for the Government but they came amid reversals, including Barry Cowen’s sacking, ministerial pay controversies, and the row over the pandemic unemployment payment.

A little like in 2011, Fine Gael has more or less managed to stay above the fray, helped by their more recent experience of government. “Frankly, it shows,” said one Fianna Fáil TD ruefully.

“The pay thing was just a mess,” said another Fianna Fáil parliamentarian. “The worst thing was there was an argument for it. It seemed to reflect on us more than the other two for some reason. And that shows how naive we are.”

Lack of experience

Until this decade, FF rarely had less than 70 TDs and was never out of power long enough to lose the muscle memory of government. This time around, only Taoiseach Micheál Martin has experience of senior ministry.

It is the same for the Greens. Eamon Ryan is their only former minister. So many others of its TDs are new, not only to the Dáil but also to politics. And the party has it leadership divisions.

Furthermore, it is under sustained attacks from Sinn Féin and left-wing parties who see it as the potential “weak link” in the coalition of three, and that the coalition’s majority can be whittled down by one assault after another.

Meanwhile, the Greens are suffering growing pains and has not got the number of staff or systems in place yet to run it properly.

Fianna Fáil has a different but related problem. With only 37 TDs, it no longer has that built-in self-conferred authority – arrogance in some eyes – of being the natural governing party. Moreover, it is divided.

Large clusters of parliamentarians are disaffected for a variety of reasons with Martin. For now, the disaffection is muted but that could change.

In the past few days, we have seen a small procession of Fianna Fáil TDs – including Willie O’Dea and Cormac Devlin – openly criticise Government policy on the PUP travel clampdown.

Sometimes, such public displays are permitted, even encouraged by the leadership. But it is not a deliberate strategy. Instead, it reflects its own members’ uncertainty about the wisdom of coalescing with its arch-rival.

Salaries

Every TD and Senator spoken to by The Irish Times yesterday said the ministerial salaries’ reverse was a serious embarrassment: “We all know we are going to get it in the neck anytime you mention pay,” said one TD.

The fact that two of the three super junior ministers were already on the higher salary could have made it justifiable. The mistake, said the non-Martin supporting TD, was not the rise but the fact that it was slipped in, on the quiet.

Did the Cabinet then overcompensate by deciding to take a 10 per cent pay cut, and the three super juniors agreeing to forego the €16,000 supplement? Especially when it turned that it did not mean a pay cut at all.

Possibly. A person with knowledge of Cabinet discussions said the 10 per cent pay cut was discussed before the controversy arose. But that said, the same person conceded the decision was probably expedited by the controversy.

Interestingly, some believe the mistakes, or that some of them can be blamed on fatigue, following months of uncertainty. Some Ministers, they argue, have taken their eye off the ball as the summer session winds down.

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