The Dail moves centre stage
The Dail and its activities moved to centre stage in recent months, prompted by legislative disagreements and promises of reform. A lasting soundbite was provided by Enda Kenny when he said he was a public representative who happened to be a Catholic, but not a Catholic Taoiseach. The fact that it needed to be said was instructive about evolving Irish politics. And its delivery, in response to a determined campaign by the Catholic hierarchy to prevent the passage of abortion legislation dealing with the “X” case, established a new parameter between Church and State.
For many, the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill was much ado about nothing: a minimalist piece of legislation that failed to address such important issues as rape, incest, unviable foetuses and the health of the mother. But it dominated Oireachtas proceedings; provided a template for how all-party committees could influence future legislation and led to rebellions within the major parties. The Fine Gael leader was ruthless and threatened those who opposed the legislation with expulsion and deselection. In the end, the expected number of rebels more than halved. In Fianna Fail, Micheal Martin was forced to allow a free vote. A big majority of his male colleagues then opposed the Bill, with female Oireachtas members voting in favour. It did not suggest a party under reconstruction.
While abortion legislation and threatened defections dominated the headlines, quiet progress was being made on the economic front. Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin, with the help of Kieran Mulvey of the Labour Relations Commission, turned defeat of a €300m savings package under Croke Park 11 into broad public sector union acceptance. From a position where damaging disputes and disruption appeared inevitable, only a handful of unions are holding out.
For his part, Minister for Finance Michael Noonan continued to play a long game. Having secured extended borrowing terms and €1b in savings on Ireland’s promissory note, he is preparing for Ireland’s exit from the bailout. The situation has been complicated by a return to recession and falling Irish exports, even as the number of people at work has slowly increased. Closing the gap between income and expenditure, so as to reassure the financial markets, remains a priority. Initiatives to spur growth at European level are not expected until the autumn and work on the October Budget is being undertaken in that light.
Preparations for an autumn referendum to abolish the Seanad continue, with predictable angry responses from its incumbents. At the same time, there has been a worrying absence of detail about how the Government intends to share power with the Dail. Faced by these issues, Government backbenchers were happy to leave for their summer holidays.