Peter Fitzpatrick’s decision to resign from Fine Gael and sit on the Independent benches in the Dáil weakens the Government but does not pose a threat to its existence.
Claims the move leaves the Government entirely dependent on Michael Lowry for its survival are also overblown - the truth is the Government is rarely in difficulty for important votes. It has more parliamentary leeway than the numbers immediately suggest, because several Independent TDs either vote with the government or do not vote
The departure of Fitzpatrick leaves Fine Gael with 49 TDs. It has the support of the four members of the Independent Alliance (all of them Ministers), plus ex-alliance TD Sean Canney normally votes with the Government. The other independent ministers Denis Naughten and Katherine Zappone naturally also support the Government.
That’s 56, one shy of a bare majority when Fianna Fáil TDs abstain.
But in addition, the independents Michael Lowry, Noel Grealish and Michael Harty often or usually vote with the Government. Other independents often abstain or just do not turn up for votes. This gives the Government a cushion that is not apparent on the bare numbers.
The last significant vote the Government was challenged on was the motion of confidence in the Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy that was held last week.
All Government TDs were instructed they had to be present - there were no exceptions. Even Cork North Central TD Dara Murphy - who now works with the EPP, has said he will not contest the next election and is rarely if ever seen around Leinster House - turned up. The Government won the vote comfortably, by 59 votes to 49, with 29 abstentions.
Lowry and Grealish voted with the Government. Harty abstained. Michael Healy-Rae wasn’t present for the vote.
Of course, the Government loses votes all the time. Mostly these are on Private Members’ motions, which the Government then simply ignores. Sometimes there are on Private Members’ Bills, but typically these move into the legislative queue and are never heard of again.
Some of these Bills are on substantive Government legislation, but none of them are votes the Government has to win to stay in office - ie, none of them involve confidence in the Government, and none of them are money bills, which by convention if the Government loses, it has lost the confidence of the House.
Running parallel to this uncertainty is the fact that many - if not most - of the unaligned Independents have no more desire for a general election than the Government does.
Fitzpatrick’s decision to run as an independent in the next election has surprised some party colleagues who knew he was unhappy - and that he was facing a challenge from Fine Gael councillor John McGahon - but expected him to bow out of politics.
Fitzpatrick has been a vocal opponent of abortion during the referendum campaign. He was a member of the all-party Oireachtas committee that recommended abortion on request be legalised up to 12 weeks, though he strongly dissented from the committee’s majority view. He voted against holding the referendum.
In the referendum Louth voted in line with the national trend - by 67 per cent to 33 per cent in favour, with some 23,000 voters opposing the constitutional change.
On the face of it, that is a large pool of anti-abortion voters. However, although they voted against the referendum proposal, it is most unlikely that all - or even most - of these voters would translate into a vote for anti-abortion candidates in a general election. While many of them oppose abortion, they do not believe it is the most important issue in a general election, on which they will base their electoral choices above all other issues. That, at least, has not been the experience before now.
In addition, the sitting Fianna Fáil TD for the constituency, Declan Breathnach, also voted against holding the referendum. In other words, whatever the size of the staunch anti-abortion vote in the constituency, there will be competition for it.