Coveney says current Dáil is no longer ‘politics as normal’

Minister says it is important that collective cabinet responsibility is taken seriously

Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Environment Simon Coveney maintains that anybody who thinks that politics in Ireland should be "politics as normal" doesn't understand the new realities of politics.

"We are in a minority government, we are trying to give leadership, sometimes we have to negotiate with Fianna Fáil as the main opposition party, like on the issue of water, there are many other areas where we have no agreement with Fianna Fáil."

He told the Today with Sean O'Rourke Show on RTÉ that this week's vote on Independent TD Mick Wallace's private member's bill on fatal foetal abnormality was a "once-off" in terms of the vote of conscience.

“This is not something that should happen often in government, what’s happened here is that arguably the most sensitive political issue - abortion, termination of pregnancy in circumstances where you have a tragic diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality and where we have two independent TDs bringing a bill, that in our view is unconstitutional on the advice of the Attorney General.


“In my view what Mick Wallace is doing is putting forward a piece of legislation that will have no effect whatsoever in terms of outcome if it is introduced because it is unconstitutional and therefore won’t work.”

He said that what has happened here was a difference of opinion and that in future the members of the Independent Alliance will take the agreement seriously, “because if we’re going to have a coherent government you do need to take collective cabinet responsibility seriously. It’s important that the government sticks together, it needs to take a collective approach”.

Water commission

The Minister said that Fine Gael will not be consulting with Fianna Fáil on the appointment of a new chair for the water commission, “but obviously it will have to be someone that will have the confidence of Fianna Fáil and others. This is a complex job”.

He denied the suggestion that he is “hiding behind Fianna Fáil” or “putting a political spin” on his decision to ask Joe O’Toole to step aside from his position as Chairperson of the independent water commission.

He said he hopes to appoint a new chairperson as soon as possible, possibly later this week and that if Fianna Fáil were not going to support the chairperson then there was an obvious outcome.

“I regard Joe O’Toole as a great guy, a straight shooter. Unfortunately his forthright comments caused problems.

“I asked Joe to do this job. I think he made a mistake being so forthright in his views. Water charges are a very sensitive issue.

“I think he would have done a good job. I was willing to support him following his comments, but others weren’t.

“The water commission has to have the support and confidence of the two main political parties. There was a lot of criticism of Joe. Ultimately if he didn’t have the support of the major parties, that wouldn’t work.”

Housing strategy

The Minister also spoke of his Housing strategy which he hopes to launch in two weeks.

““We’re building about a third of the number of houses we need to be building each year.”

He said there is no silver bullet answer that will solve everything, there will be multi strands to this strategy.

“We need to significantly increase expenditure in supply of social housing - that will happen in three ways, increase in social housing, increase in construction, bringing vacant properties, public and private back into use, all of that costs money. There are ways to do that - on balance sheet and off balance sheet.

“There has already been a commitment to a significant increase in expenditure on social housing.

“It’s not straightforward to look for flexibility in EU - we can’t just go to Brussels and say we need flexibility - there’s a process, a follow through that would take some time to do.

“We need a streamlined planning system - if you’re a builder and want to build houses, it could take two to three years now with the planning process, that needs to be streamlined, in normal circumstances the process is correct, but my job is to try to deliver houses quickly, while at the same time ensuring that we’re making the proper planning decisions.

“We’re looking at a mechanism that will make that happen. I’m talking to Bord Pleanala, local authorities, one way or another it is not good enough for us to be building 12,000 units a year when we need to be building 30,000 per year.

“Because of our economy we’re expecting an influx through immigration of about 10,000 people this year. We’re also committed to welcoming 4,000 refugees over the next few years, added together in terms of housing need that’s more than all the houses built last year.

Mr Coveney said that the housing crisis is the number one issue for the government.

“Last year 73 houses were built by local authorities, that needs to be 3,000 a year, or maybe more. We are empowering local authorities into building social housing again. We added extra 420 staff to drive that.

“We are empowering local authorities to do a lot more.

“Between 70 per cent and 80 per cent of rough sleepers in Dublin have addiction problems. This is not simply about providing a bed or putting a roof over someone’s head, it is also about putting supports in place and working with the Department of Health and the Department of Children putting more comprehensive solutions in place.”