Hidden vote deal between Alliance and Fine Gael comes under pressure

Alliance under pressure not to vote against Government on occupied territories Bill

Government Chief Whip Seán Kyne recently told TDs that any unapproved absences during the coming Dáil term will be reported to the Taoiseach. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill / The Irish Times

Government Chief Whip Seán Kyne recently told TDs that any unapproved absences during the coming Dáil term will be reported to the Taoiseach. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill / The Irish Times

 

Depending on who you ask, the Independent Alliance operates a tacit arrangement with Fine Gael whereby some of its members go missing for Dáil votes or it maintains a parliamentary discipline that would make the fabled Sinn Féin machine envious.

Some sources in the Alliance acknowledge there is an agreement between the partners in the fragile minority coalition that allows some of its TDs go missing when issues of political discomfort arise.

Others swear blind they have never heard of such an “arrangement” – as it is described by those who profess knowledge of it.

“It is not written down,” said one source, who stressed there is no formal deal in place. “It is tacit,” said another.

A well placed Fine Gael source said: “It is happening the odd time.”

Rows between Enda Kenny and the Alliance – comprised of Shane Ross, Finian McGrath, John Halligan and Kevin “Boxer” Moran – over free votes on issues such as neutrality and abortion were commonplace at the outset of the Government’s term.

Leo Varadkar, it is claimed by insiders, adopts a more relaxed approach, although Government Chief Whip Seán Kyne recently told TDs that any unapproved absences during the coming Dáil term will be reported to the Taoiseach.

Allowing TDs go walkabout for contentious issues is a well-worn parliamentary tactic, but when the TDs concerned are Ministers or Ministers of State, it takes on a different hue.

At the very least, it breaches the Programme for Government, which says: “Cabinet decisions, for example, in the response to Private Members’ Motions and on Government Memoranda, will be collectively decided and bind all office 18 holders.”

Most of the votes where some in the Alliance (mostly, it is claimed by those in Government, McGrath and Halligan) are allowed go missing are on foreign policy issues, and independent sources stress they would never put the survival of the Coalition at risk or undermine budgetary policy.

An exchange at yesterday’s Cabinet meeting may bring to the surface a deal that has been kept subterranean thus far. McGrath and Ross asked that it be recorded that they did not want to support the Government’s position against an Opposition Bill to be voted on in the Dáil this week. The Bill calls for a ban on goods produced in the occupied Palestinian territories.

However, at a meeting between the four members of the Alliance and Varadkar and Tánaiste Simon Coveney last week, it was made clear an abstention on the occupied territories Bill would be acceptable to Fine Gael.

Coveney is understood to have asked the Alliance not to vote against the Government and said four ministers siding with the Opposition could lead to Israel closing its embassy in Dublin.

Government sources last night said the closure of the embassy would be one of the least worrying outcomes of such a scenario, adding that the Attorney General has already said the Bill will contravene EU law and lead to significant fines being levied on the State.

In making their positions known, McGrath and Ross could be honouring another political tradition: picking a fight they already know they will win.

Yet some in the Alliance are concerned that a consistent pattern of failing to support the Government will undermine the credibility of the Fine Gael-Independent Coalition and give Varadkar an excuse to call an election if he so wishes.

The Taoiseach’s comments at Christmas – - in which he said he could call an election “if I got into a position where we weren’t able to get our legislative programme through” – were noted.

When asked if being blamed for an election is a concern, one Alliance source said: “Yes, that is a risk.”