The week that saw the beginning of the end for Varadkar’s Government and 32nd Dáil

Christmas cheer:  Micheál Martin, Finian McGrath, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Mary Lou McDonald, Róisín Shortall and Shane Ross at the Oireachtas Christmas tree lights switching-on ceremony at Leinster House.  Photograph: Alan Betson

The numbers alternated slightly on the board that hangs in Seán Kyne’s office, but the Government Chief Whip’s calculations always pointed to a Government victory.

The board is used for the big occasions – budget votes or confidence motions – and the Social Democrats’ motion of no confidence in Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy on Tuesday was, undoubtedly, one of those moments.

With every TD’s name on an individual magnetic strip, it carefully listed those for and against, and Kyne’s calculations. From early on, the numbers pointed towards a victory of two or three, depending on whether Independent TD Denis Naughten abstained or supported the Government of which he was a member until he resigned from Cabinet last year.

Every Government TD and all Ministers were ordered to be present in the Dáil for Tuesday’s vote. Some came home early from foreign trips. Others arrived just in time from European Union business in Brussels.

“The worry wasn’t the Independents,” said one Government figure. “It was fog at Dublin Airport.”

Around the time Charlie Flanagan and others were touching down and heading straight for the Dáil, Kyne brought Peter Fitzpatrick, the Louth TD who resigned the Fine Gael whip last year, to his office in a last-minute bid to get him to support the Government. Fitzpatrick did not budge.

Other opposition Independent TDs who were thinking of abstaining, such as Dublin Central’s Maureen O’Sullivan and Tipperary’s Mattie McGrath, moved definitively against the Government.

More Independent deputies had been approached, too, and asked to either abstain, vote with the Government or provide a pair – an arrangement where an Opposition TD absents themselves or abstains to compensate for a Minister who is away on State business.

The 32nd Dáil, which has so often dulled the political senses during its life, crackled on the night that could yet be remembered as heralding the beginning of its end.

Christmas election

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar had told his Fine Gael Ministers at their weekly pre-Cabinet gathering earlier on Tuesday that an election would follow if the motion was lost. Polling day would be Saturday, December 28th – a novel way to enliven the lazy days between Christmas and New Year’s.

“He said we can’t have it on December 24th – ha, ha, ha – but it would have been December 28th,” said one Minister. As well as discussing the confidence vote, Ministers also rallied each other after Fine Gael’s failure to win any of the four byelections held in Wexford, Cork North Central, Dublin Fingal and Dublin Mid West the previous weekend.

The Government’s survival was never truly in doubt on Tuesday night, but the motion of no confidence was a clarifying, if not a decisive, moment for Varadkar’s minority Fine Gael-Independent administration.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin on the plinth at Leinster House with newly elected TDs Malcolm Byrne and Pádraig O’Sullivan. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin on the plinth at Leinster House with newly elected TDs Malcolm Byrne and Pádraig O’Sullivan. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

The tightness of the 56-53 result and the calcifying of Dáil opinion against the Government, which had to rely on three Opposition Independent TDs – Noel Grealish, Denis Naughten and Michael Lowry – to win, provided the drama.

“You don’t assume they are rock solid at any stage, especially on confidence motions because they are very stark,” said one source when speaking about the three Independents who came to the Government’s aid. “Denis is an old hand at this and didn’t show his hand until the very end. We were confident of 55-53, 56-53 was a bonus.”

To add further spice to evening for Fine Gael TDs, Tom Curran, the party’s general secretary - whose presence always sparks palace intrigue about election tickets -  was spotted in Leinster House.

Hours after the vote, Fine Gael was down one more TD.

Dara Murphy resigned his Cork North Central seat to take up a new role with the European Commission, unhelpfully leaving his colleagues to deal with public anger over his non-attendance in Leinster House while claiming a TD’s salary and expenses.

The Government’s Dáil strength now stands at 53, out of a total of 158 TDs. The confidence and supply deal sees Fianna Fáil’s 45 TDs abstain on budget and confidence votes and the Ceann Comhairle only uses his casting vote in the event of a tie.

Fianna Fáil’s John McGuinness says he will no longer abstain on confidence motions, meaning the Government is facing a 56-56 tie if another motion is put down against Minister for Health Simon Harris or the Government itself in the New Year.

And that’s if it holds on to Naughten, Grealish and Lowry. Naughten confirmed this week that he will take any future votes on a “case-by-case basis” and Fine Gaelers picked up signals that the same Independent support is unlikely to be forthcoming again.

“They are basically saying: ‘That was it, lads’,” said one senior party figure, who understood how helping a government at the end of its term would be politically difficult. “Why would they? They may as well join Fine Gael.”

'If there is a motion against Simon Harris, I’d be voting for it. I’d vote for the Government to be taken down'

Lowry and Grealish were seen by Ministers as always likely to support the Government but Naughten was the last to commit, after he said he secured amendments to the Fair Deal nursing home legislation. Grealish told friends that he had not asked for anything for his support.

Naughten had been contacted by Kyne on the Thursday before the vote, and the Chief Whip inquired if he, at the very least, would abstain. Naughten could give no such commitment.

Independent Roscommon Galway TD Michael Fitzmaurice was called by Tánaiste Simon Coveney last Saturday afternoon. Coveney asked if Fitzmaurice could provide him with a pair, since he would be in Israel and Palestine for the vote. Fitzmaurice agreed, but says he will not do so again. “If there is a motion against Simon Harris, I’d be voting for it. I’d vote for the Government to be taken down.”

Unsustainable

All sides in the Dáil believe the numbers are unsustainable and that if Boris Johnson wins a majority in the British general election on Thursday and passes the Withdrawal Agreement through the House of Commons to allow Brexit actually happen at the end of January, an Irish election will follow early in 2020.

The tabling of another confidence motion by some element of the Opposition is a real possibility, probability, or guaranteed, depending on one’s view, although none can be put down in Eoghan Murphy for another six months,

“It doesn’t matter what the motion is on,” said one Minister. “If there is a motion of no confidence on bingo, we wouldn’t have the numbers.

“People are openly saying: ‘Should we come back after Christmas at all’?” the Minister added, suggesting Varadkar could simply call an election before the Christmas Dáil recess ends.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin repeated his view, in public and private, that the natural cut-off point is Easter. Fianna Fáil will abstain until then, but the defection of just one more vote against the Government renders confidence and supply null and void: the Government will fall even if Fianna Fáil sits on its hands. For Martin, Fianna Fáil must keep to its word in order to win the electorate’s trust.

“He said it is important for trust,” one party frontbencher said.

Varadkar’s preferred election date is next May and he told the Fine Gael parliamentary party his position is still that the country should still go to the polls in six months.

Yet events are slipping beyond his control, and Fine Gael fought on numerous fronts this week.

Dara Murphy: controversy surrounding the now former Cork TD caused the party serious damage, according to his former Fine Gael TD colleagues. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Dara Murphy: controversy surrounding the now former Cork TD caused the party serious damage, according to his former Fine Gael colleagues. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Dara Murphy

The controversy surrounding Dara Murphy caused the party serious damage, according to TDs. Murphy is disliked by many TDs who formed the vanguard of Varadkar’s campaign for the Fine Gael leadership campaign 2½ years ago. The former Minister for European Affairs was a close ally of Enda Kenny and took Coveney’s side against Varadkar in the leadership contest.

The TDs retold yarns to each other this week as if to remind themselves of what it was that irked them about Murphy – how he was high-handed with backbenchers at times; how he was often one of the first on his feet to defend Kenny at moments of trouble; and what one Minister close to Varadkar viciously described as his “absolute craven lick-arseing of Kenny”.

Sympathy was in short supply when he scuttled into the chamber on Tuesday evening to vote on the motion on his namesake, Eoghan Murphy, just before handing in his letter of resignation as a TD to Leas Ceann Comhairle Pat “The Cope” Gallagher.

“He was awkwardly smiling as if he was being ribbed,” said one Minister who watched on as Murphy took part in the walk-through vote on the motion of no confidence.

'There is no loyalty,' said one source. 'They are going out to the media all the time, but they’ll get a kick in the hole'

Some in Fine Gael felt Varadkar should have been tougher in public when he spoke about Murphy. However, many felt that both the weekly parliamentary party meeting on Wednesday and Tuesday’s pre-Cabinet meeting of party Ministers had galvanising effects after a trying few weeks.

At the pre-Cabinet meeting, Michael Ring, the Minister for Rural Affairs, said some of his colleagues believed their loyalty was to the media rather than the party. His view is shared by other party veterans, surprised at the public back-biting going on, if anonymously, within Fine Gael. Picking up on this, Varadkar told TDs to stop briefing journalists on an off the record basis.

Concern that discipline seems to be breaking down is evident among the longest-serving.

“There is no loyalty,” said one source. “They are going out to the media all the time, but they’ll get a kick in the hole.

“A lot of them came in too soft. They got their Dáil seats too soft. They are too ambitious. They think they should be ministers on the first day. Like Dara Murphy – he has done us more damage than anyone. He is a b*****ks.”

Another old party hand said: “There are very few natural leaders in Fine Gael. That’s coming through.”

But Fine Gaelers still believe they can beat Fianna Fáil at the next election, and claim that Martin’s party, after winning two seats in the byelections, is not as strong as may seem at first glance.

“If they were serious, they’d have been over the quota in two constituencies,” said one member of the Cabinet of the byelections, who also said Fianna Fáil’s performances in Dublin Mid West and Dublin Fingal showed it had yet to fully recover in the capital. Varadkar also this week repeated his view to TDs that he will not underpin a Fianna Fáil-led minority government from Opposition if he wins more Dáil seats than Martin.

“There are people writing articles now that are like ‘Dewey Beats Truman’,” said another Minister of some predictions that Fine Gael will not be in power after the election, referencing the Chicago Tribune newspaper which famously miscalled the outcome of the 1948 US presidential election.

With the UK election next week, as well as a meeting of the European Council, Fine Gael hopes attention will switch back to Brexit, one of its strongest calling cards.

As the precarious edifice of the 32nd Dáil crumbles, some Ministers swear they will not enter into a confidence and supply agreement again – the next government, they say, must command a Dáil majority.

“The Dáil is over now,” one said. “The only thing that could stop it is Brexit, if it is not sorted. The game is so tight, and after that the real problems start. It has to be a majority.”

This means “every option has to be looked at” – the Greens, Labour, and whether, even, “we go to Sinn Féin”.

“It’ll take months – don’t rule out a second election. You’re not going to believe me, but it was the best week Fine Gael had in a long while. We know we have to fight now. We got the kick in the balls we needed.”