‘Good faith and no surprises’ key phrase in government plan
Members of the new ‘coalition’ must get over the small stuff if it is going to work
The 32nd Dáil will be very different from the last. The working model where government proposes and parliament disposes is gone. Photograph: Michael Quinn
The Dáil broke new ground on Friday with the appointment of a Fine Gael-led minority Government, but the often chaotic scenes surrounding its creation does not augur well for its ability to govern smoothly.
Seemingly trifling matters, such as access to bog-cutting areas and a clearer definition of “passenger” in the plan for a western rail corridor, threatened negotiations, as did Shane Ross’s efforts to depoliticise judicial appointments.
The key phrase in the 160-page programme for government is “good faith and no surprises”. This means nothing major will be sprung without warning by Fine Gael on to its Independent partners in the Government or on to Fianna Fáil.
The 32nd Dáil will be very different from the last. The working model where government proposes and parliament disposes is gone.
For one, the new Dáil reforms will see a new “business committee” deciding the order of business rather than the Government.
In another key change, the Dáil and parliamentary committees will not meet at the same time. This facilitates the establishment of a number of powerful new committees with tangible powers that will have enough teeth to direct and influence Government policy.
At present, only one committee – the Public Accounts Committee – is perceived as having that robust nature and independence.
There will now also be a new budget committee, which will have a huge input in deciding the shape of each year’s budget as well as the powers to make amendments to the final document, as long as they are cost-neutral.
Other powerful committees will include a health strategy committee, which will be asked to set out a 10-year plan for the health service; a higher education committee, which will look at long-term funding; and a housing and homelessness committee.
The chairs of the committees will be decided using the D’Hondt method. This system will allow each party and grouping to nominate a chair for a committee, which will be allocated according to the strength of the party.
Essentially, this means that Fine Gael will have first choice, and it is likely it will take the chair of the key budget committee. Fianna Fáil would then take the next chair, probably of the Public Accounts Committee.
Independent TD from Clare Michael Harty, who is also a GP, has expressed interest in the health committee chair but may find that a larger grouping has taken it.
There will also be a huge relaxation in whipping rules in the new Dáil and a never-before-seen Government generosity in terms of sharing Dáil business with the Opposition and giving it extended time to pursue its agendas. There will also be assistance available in terms of legally drafting private members’ Bills.
The effect of this is the Government is going to suffer a lot of Dáil defeats during its term of office, but none on the critical issues that trigger a general election, such as confidence votes and budgets.
In 1987-1989, the Fianna Fáil minority government lost a total of nine votes without threats to its existence. Expect the same this time.
That is spelled out in some detail. In essence, it means that once one is in government, one is locked in. Each of the nine Independents who supported the nomination of Enda Kenny as Taoiseach, with the exception of Dr Harty and Michael Lowry, will be given a ministerial job, either in the senior or junior ranks. This may be a clever move on the part of Fine Gael as it ensures nobody goes overboard when tough and unpopular decisions are made.
The fact they are Ministers will tie the Independents to the responsibilities of office. They will be “collectively bound by Cabinet decisions” to support the Government, including on private members’ motions.
It’s a whip system in all but name. To assuage the concerns of the Independent members of Government who may be forced to swallow unpalatable medicine, a whole raft of “formal early warning procedures” will be put in place to make sure all controversial measures are finessed.
That frequent contact will also extend to Fianna Fáil, which will be kept in the loop on all critical pieces of policy and legislation.