Dáil voting: Fine Gael wins some, loses some, maybe loses some more

As long as their existence isn’t threatened, Government TDs shrug off Bill defeats

Regina Doherty: When it comes to counting upcoming votes in the Dáil, the  Chief Whip  proceeds on the assumption that Fianna Fáil will not support the Government or abstain. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Regina Doherty: When it comes to counting upcoming votes in the Dáil, the Chief Whip proceeds on the assumption that Fianna Fáil will not support the Government or abstain. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

When the Fianna Fáil minority government of 1987-1989 lost its ninth vote in the Dáil (on funding for Aids sufferers), it pushed a clearly annoyed taoiseach Charlie Haughey into collapsing the government and calling a general election.

The current Fine Gael-led Government is only half as old as that short-lived administration but has already nearly matched it in terms of Dáil defeats. It lost two votes on Thursday, bringing its total to six and counting.

The two were Opposition-proposed Private Members’ Bills. One requires the National Treasury Management Agency to sell off all of its shares in oil and gas companies. The other is a Sinn Féin motion on compensating those wrongly denied tracker motions.

Unlike Haughey, the reaction of Government TDs to Dáil defeats is a shrug of the shoulders – as long as the Bills are not ones that might undermine its continuing existence. Deputies are now used to the idea that defeats, if not commonplace, are inevitable from time to time.

The complicated arithmetic of the Dáil composition has had far-reaching consequences for its day-to-day operations, some of them only becoming fully apparent now, a year after the election.

There are 57 TDs on the official Government side, which is slightly more than a third of the 158-strong chamber. Without the “confidence and supply” arrangement with Fianna Fáil, it would simply not survive.

The main opposition party describe the agreement as a “permanent pair”. But it covers only those agreements reached in the three-page document.

The Government has a whopping majority when Fianna Fáil supports it. When Fianna Fáil opposes it (as happened twice on Thursday), the Government proposals go down in flames. When Fianna Fáil abstains, as it often does, it can still be hit and miss for the Government to get something through.

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Potential trouble

Every Thursday, Government Chief Whip Regina Doherty sits down with her senior officials, Alice Kearney and Leslie Hamilton, to study the Bills due to come up the following week and sniff out potential hand grenades.

They and the other whip office staff, Dee Redmond, Katie Downs and Mark O’Doherty (the latter liaises with Government departments), pay particular attention to the Private Members motions being prepared by the Opposition. In the 32nd Dáil there are three each week (which some say is too many), compared with one or two per week in the previous Dáil.

This Dáil is interesting in that many of these headline-gabbing votes do not take place at the conclusion of a particular debate, but are left over to the “voting block” before lunch on Thursday to take all contested votes. There might be votes on six or seven different issues, taken sequentially.

The optics are always bad for the Government if, as happened yesterday, there is more than one defeat.

A week earlier it also lost a vote (this one on tillage farming) and had to rely on Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl’s casting vote when the Dáil divided 51 votes to 51 on an AAA-PBP Private Members’ Bill to prohibit evictions.

Doherty has had, at times, a rocky first year in this key role, operating in very different circumstances from any of her predecessors. For one thing, the long-established “pairing” system used to cover for absentee Ministers and TDs has become redundant.

Neutralised votes

In the past, the main Opposition party agreed that certain number of its TDs would not participate in votes to cover for Ministers who were abroad on Government business, or TDs who were absent because of illness. The effect of the “pair” arrangement was that it neutralised the vote.

Pairing with Fianna Fáil is pointless because it is no longer a traditional opposition party. Fine Gael needs Fianna Fáil to support – or at least abstain – so a “pair” doesn’t work as it still means a lost vote.

There is no formal pair arrangement with any other party. Nor is this the kind of deal that Fianna Fail’s chief whip, Séamus Brennan, struck up with four Independents to keep them “onside” during a Fianna Fáil-led minority government in 1997.

Fianna Fáil does not always signal in advance how it will vote. Having been blindsided once or twice, Doherty says she now proceeds on the basis of not presuming Fianna Fáil will support or abstain, if the vote concerned is outside the confidence and supply agreement.

With only 57 votes guaranteed, the Chief Whip and her team decide on Thursday which Ministers will be given permission to be absent the following week, especially around votes. For example, Enda Kenny and Michael Noonan were in Davos, and Denis Naughten was recuperating from an accident, when the Government almost lost the vote on the anti-eviction Bill.

Ms Doherty will argue that she still got it through, even though no pairs were available. Some weeks, Ministers are told they cannot travel abroad on Government business.

Lowry and Harty

There is no formal deal with Independents or Opposition TDs, but the communication is constant. Michael Lowry and Michael Harty are two Independents who frequently support the Government. Doherty speaks with them every week and outlines the legislation, and sees if they have difficulties.

Other Independents, such as Stephen Donnelly (particularly), Noel Grealish and Mattie McGrath are also accommodating, especially if a Government-side deputy is sick or indisposed because of an emergency. Similarly, Sinn Féin’s whip, Aengus Ó Snodaigh, has tried to facilitate informal pairs when there are medical issues.

Given the volume of Private Members’ Bills, the big surprise is not that the Government has not lost votes, but that it has not lost more of them.