Government’s first year: So little done, so much to do

Earnest effort in a few areas, but hardly a record of consistent, tangible achievement

“Fourth time is the charm, as they say,” quipped the Fine Gael backbencher Noel Rock as he rose in the Dáil a year ago to nominate Enda Kenny as Taoiseach. In the 70 days that had passed since the February election, the young Finglas TD had already performed the same oratorical task three times. Three times the Dáil had rejected his imprecations.

But this would be his final outing. That afternoon, after a harum-scarum final few hours in which the Dáil waffled away while Michael Noonan scrambled to conclude a deal with the Independents, Kenny was elected Taoiseach for the second time in succession, the only Fine Gael leader ever to achieve the feat.

The birth of the Government was chaotic, a signpost towards its unsteady early months. Though the Dáil was discussing the nomination of a Taoiseach that Friday afternoon, the final agreement had not yet been concluded with the Independents. Fine Gael had struck a bargain with Fianna Fáil, but the Independents were holding out.

In the chamber, opposition TDs kept talking, decrying the deal that was not yet made; had they realised what was going on upstairs, they could have simply shut up and forced a vote. If he were defeated a fourth time, Kenny had pledged to call another election. The Government might never have been formed. But they didn’t, and that evening, May 6th, 2016, Ministers received their seals of office from President Michael D Higgins, and held the first meeting of the new Cabinet, as is customary, in Áras an Úachtaráin.


It was a strange beast, right enough. Fianna Fáil was not in government, but it wasn’t exactly out, either.

‘Confidence and supply’

Micheál Martin had shunned Kenny’s big offer of a grand coalition, but had entered into a “confidence and supply” agreement, guaranteeing to underpin the Government in budget and finance votes, and in votes of confidence. The two parties agreed an outline policy document describing the general approach of the new Government in a variety of policy areas. The sticking point of water charges – which had proved the most contentious point of the negotiations by far – was kicked into the long grass of a special committee.

But it was the Independent TDs that were the truly novel part of the Government. With considerable prescience, Shane Ross and Finian McGrath had put together a group of Independents prior to the election, travelling around the country, recruiting candidates, all the while optimistically calculating the likely electoral arithmetic.

In the wake of the inconclusive February election, equipped with 10 broad policy principles (in truth so broad they were largely meaningless), a handful of votes and a desire to be ministers, the Independent Alliance threw themselves into coalition negotiations with some gusto, and no little political skill. They secured a host of commitments for their own constituencies, much fine-sounding language about rural Ireland in the programme for government and Ministerial jobs for most of their number.

But the Independent Alliance alone could not provide sufficient numbers to let Kenny reach the magic figure of 58 votes needed for a bare Dáil majority once Fianna Fáil abstained. Other Independent votes were needed, too. Denis Naughten and Katherine Zappone did their own negotiating and cut their own deals; both ended up in Cabinet. The Clare Independent, Dr Michael Harty, also agreed at the last minute to back Kenny for Taoiseach, but his support was more conditional, and his reward less glittering: he got the chair of the Oireachtas health committee.

Uneasy and hesitant

The new Government settled uneasily and hesitantly into office. Junior Minister appointments and committee chairs meant that most of the Fine Gael TDs were given jobs, though if Kenny thought this would stifle the subterranean mumblings about his leadership, he was right only for a few weeks. The first open dissent about his ’s leadership came in July; it would never be completely silenced.

Three weeks into its life, the Government lost its first Dáil vote, on a private members’ motion. The event was invested with some significance at the time, but it would soon become clear that this would be a normal feature of parliamentary business in the new Dáil.

After a while, the Government mostly stopped contesting motions it knew it would lose. Private members’ Bills began to be regularly accepted, not because the Government wanted to make them law, but because Ministers figured they couldn’t stop them – not on the floor of the Dáil, anyway. Institutional indolence turned out to be more effective; Bills were accepted, and then got bogged down.

It soon became clear the most important feature of the 32nd Dáil was that the Government of the day did not command a majority. Within the Cabinet, it was often hard to discern a single political will, despite the constitutional imperative that the Government act as a collective authority.

In June, when Clare Daly put down a motion providing for abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, the Attorney General advised the Government it was in conflict with the Constitution’s anti-abortion article. The Independent Alliance Ministers refused to accept her view and for a few days it seemed the Government would topple almost before it had begun. In the end, the Taoiseach relented, warning his colleagues in a fraught Cabinet meeting that he would not do so again.

Brexit bombshell

The abortion issue would recur throughout the Coalition’s first year in office. But in the early hours of June 24th, the issue that would above all dominate the Government’s life exploded – the UK voted to leave the European Union.

To the Government’s credit, it quickly marshalled its diplomatic and political priorities, embarking last autumn on a campaign of lobbying and explanation of Ireland’s particular plight around Europe. So far, it has yielded results – both the UK and the EU are approaching the forthcoming negotiations having explicitly numbered Ireland’s concerns amongst their negotiating priorities.

The full effects of Brexit on Ireland will not be apparent until later in this Government’s life. But no issue will loom larger, and the ability of any Irish government to decisively influence the final outcome is, to say the least of it, uncertain.

The breakdown of relations between the Independent Alliance and Fine Gael over abortion confirmed what many in the party privately thought about their new Government colleagues – that they weren’t serious politicians of government, couldn’t be trusted and would act irresponsibly unless Fine Gael minded them – and that the new set-up couldn’t last. The Independents knew exactly what Fine Gael thought about them. They both bridled at it, and affected not to care.

The two sides clashed again when the European Commission ruled Apple owed the state €13 billion, after a previous government had granted the tech giant favourable tax treatment that enabled them to book huge profits through Ireland while paying only nominal taxes. The Government furiously contested the decision and launched an appeal – eventually. It took a week of threats, promises and arm-twisting before the Independents agreed to contest the commission’s decision.

It would be months before the two sides found a way of communicating with each other and coexisting with any degree of common purpose. As often happens with governments, it took the Budget to bond them together.

Extra money

And as often happens with budgets, it took extra money, found late in the day, to get political agreement. The Fiscal Advisory Council, the Government’s independent budgetary watchdog, was not amused and criticised the Budget as going beyond what was prudent. Thus do politics and economics co-exist uneasily; when resources are available, politics usually wins out.

But for all the short-term political fixing, longer term issues kept pushing through, demanding attention. With a chronic shortage of housing pushing up house prices and rents and elbowing thousands of families into emergency accommodation, Simon Coveney produced, with the assistance of an all-party committee, a wide-ranging plan of action. But implementation is slow and building houses is even slower.

Coveney pushed through a rent control and tenant protection Bill before Christmas over Fianna Fáil’s objections. This delighted Fine Gaelers but for all Coveney’s industry, the housing picture has not yet changed significantly. It remains one of the Government’s most pressing, unsolved problems.

The drumbeats of public sector unrest over pay grew louder as 2016 came to a close, amplified by an extraordinary special pay deal awarded in the Labour Court to gardaí – already the best-paid part of the public service, according to CSO figures. The gardaí were ready to embark on an unprecedented and almost certainly illegal strike; the Government appeared to have all the resolve and fortitude of a rabbit in the headlights.

The rest of the public sector unions took note. A Commission on Public Sector Pay and a €1,000 payment for public servants postponed the problem until the coming summer. It was a manoeuvre that was by now becoming familiar – when it can, the kick to touch is the Government’s tactic of choice.

But the thing about kicks to touch is that the ball gets thrown back in. The new year would see further disagreement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil over water charges – once the issue came out of the special committee set up to house it temporarily last year – that once again threatened to destroy the administration. Relations between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are now worse than they have been since the deal between them was agreed a year ago.

Calling time

Kenny’s own party effectively called time on him when the latest round of Garda scandals – this time over the treatment of whistleblower Maurice McCabe – saw him contradicting himself once too often. Searching for a way out and finding none, he indicated to his party he would go, and go soon. He has stretched that period out with guile and resolve, but it is coming to a close now.

Privately, many senior civil servants believe that the experiment with the minority government has not worked. Leadership is lacking, they say, on too many issues. The business of government is hardly moving.

The cutting judgment of one former senior official is that this Government exists only to be in office. That is harsh, and coloured by political partisanship. But it is not entirely unwarranted.

After a year in office, the record is thin – earnest effort in a few areas, including housing, but hardly a record of consistent, tangible achievement. Usually decisions that can be put off, are put off. Commissions and investigations abound. The sense of a holding pattern is unmistakable. The flow of legislation has slowed to a trickle. The Seanad will not return next week because there is no legislation to debate, its members have been told.

It is hard to escape the sense that the Government is stuck until the Kenny retires. Noel Rock, whose swooning enthusiasm heralded Kenny’s second term, now regularly appears in the media urging him to name the date.

With Kenny’s departure will come an end not just to an era in Irish politics, but a distinct phase in the Government’s existence. Whether there will be another one is, as yet, unclear.