Government bogged down by fight to lead Fine Gael

Recent controversy and party contest means little real work being done in Leinster House

The Cabinet formally approved a new Latvian ambassador yesterday, a formal nicety that the diplomatic proprieties require. It also accepted the 2015 annual report of Bord na gCon, the state's oversight and funding body for the greyhound industry, and similar reports from the boards of the Housing Agency and the Dublin Docklands Agency. That one is being wound up.

Minister for Jobs Mary Mitchell O'Connor brought a report on controlled exports and Minister for Social Protection Leo Varadkar briefed on a review of the social insurance fund. The Government considered its position on Dáil and Seanad Private Members' Bills, deciding to oppose one and allow two others to proceed, at least for the time being.

That was about it from the Fine Gael part of the Government.

The Independents had even less going on.


At the post-Cabinet briefing for political correspondents, the deputy Government press secretary, who represents the views of the Independent members of the Cabinet to the press, passed when it came to her turn. The Independents had nothing at Cabinet from their departments.

There were two further pieces of business, though. Independent super junior minister Finian McGrath asked Taoiseach Enda Kenny if he would speak to his colleagues about the uncertainty that had overtaken the administration in the past fortnight – a question, we can be reasonably sure, was also on everyone’s else’s mind.

Detailed account

The Taoiseach wasn’t biting, though, and told McGrath that he would be addressing the matter at the Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting. Ministers didn’t really expect an answer, but at least some of them professed themselves amused at McGrath’s temerity.

However, the Taoiseach did go on to ask each of his Ministers to brief about ongoing work in their departments: what progress they were making, what legislation was forthcoming, what their agenda was, and so on. “He cross-examined us,” one Minister said. “Every one of us had to give a detailed account of what we were doing.”

At least one Minister present thought this round-table interrogation was as much to give them something to talk about as anything else. The meeting was done in 90 minutes – considerably shorter than usual, even in an administration where Cabinet agendas have been relatively light.

According to several people involved in the process – and who spoke to The Irish Times on condition of anonymity – the work of Government has almost frozen. The relentless political controversy of recent weeks has sucked all the energy from the work of governing in an administration that was already slow to make progress on policy formulation and legislation.

“You can see it in our place,” says one Government insider referring to his own department. “You can sense it. And that’s the way it is across all the other departments. And that’ll be it for – what? – two months now.”

Leadership question

His views were echoed by others across the Government apparatus. One source said he expected few decisions to be made until the leadership question in Fine Gael was settled. There is a certain amount of work that the system throws up: annual reports, parliamentary business, routine operations of the mechanics of government. But contentious legislation, which requires agreement between Ministers beforehand, has slowed right down.

The meetings and exchanges which smooth its passage through committee, Cabinet and then parliament are being postponed. Legislation to reform the way judges are appointed, for example, demanded by Minister for Transport Shane Ross as the price for approving a series of judicial appointments and promised by the Department of Justice for months now (the latest deadline was the end of January) has not yet materialised.

Nobody seems too bothered.

Other official sources say that departments are, in many cases, reluctant to bring forward legislation because they are afraid of it being drastically amended in a Dáil where the Government cannot enforce its will and cannot ensure the passage of its Bills.

Decisions about public sector pay and about priorities for the Government’s comprehensive review of expenditure will be required in the coming months. There are very few people in the Government right now who have a great deal of faith in the capacity of the present administration to reach them.

The change of leadership in Fine Gael and the Government is coming.

Though there will be great focus in the coming days about the exact timetable of the Taoiseach’s last weeks and months, the fearful act of regicide has already taken place. What remains is the organisation of the funereal rites.

In the meantime, Government business remains on a go-slow.

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times