Drama far from over as FF seeks to pass Finance Bill


ANALYSIS:The coalition’s downfall has been one of the most remarkable events in Irish politics. Expect more volatility in this Dáil’s final days

IT IS NO exaggeration to say that the downfall of Brian Cowen’s Government has been one of the most remarkable events in Irish political history. Politics will probably never be the same again.

Over the past 10 days, the pace of events has been bewildering. Cowen’s decision to resign as leader of Fianna Fáil on Saturday, while remaining on as Taoiseach, was stunning, if inevitable. People scarcely had time to digest it when the Green Party announced its decision to leave Government yesterday.

All the extremities of language have been used in an attempt to describe what has happened, but they cannot convey the astonishing sequence of events. Most incredible of all has been the blundering of a party whose hallmark has always been its ability to win and hold power.

In one sense, though, Fianna Fáil’s self-destruction was probably inevitable. The scale of the crisis brought about by the collapse of the Celtic Tiger economy was bound to manifest itself in seismic political change sooner or later.

The expectation was that Fianna Fáil would face its moment of truth in the general election when the voters got a chance to vent their anger. What was so surprising was the manner in which the party began to implode before its term of office expired.

And the drama is far from over. In the next few days, the Dáil will have to find a way of dealing with a situation in which the Opposition has effective control of the business of the House.

The decision of the Green Party to withdraw from coalition was an inevitable reaction to the leadership crisis in Fianna Fail. The action put paid to its own plans to get prized legislation like the Climate Change Bill and waste levies into law, but the party is still sticking to its pledge to get the Finance Bill through.

The Green Party will now be on the Opposition benches along with Fine Gael, the Labour Party, Sinn Féin and a number of Independents. The challenge facing all of them is to find a way of ensuring that the Finance Bill is passed over the next week or so, despite the absence of a government.

All agree with Fianna Fáil that the Bill should become law before the general election begins. The problem is that there is a serious difference of opinion between Fianna Fáil and the rest as to whether it can be done.

Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan has invited Fine Gael and Labour, as well as his former coalition partners in the Greens, to a meeting today to try to work out an arrangement to get the Bill into law before the election is called.

Lenihan continued to insist yesterday that it would be logistically impossible to have the Bill passed by Friday, as the Opposition has demanded. His argument is that even if the Dáil could pass all stages by Friday, the Bill would have to go to the Seanad and back to the Dáil again with any Seanad amendments before it could become law.

In the normal course of events the argument being put forward by Lenihan, and by Cowen, would be regarded as eminently reasonable, but these are clearly not normal times so abnormal methods will have to be found to get the Finance Bill into law or it will have to be kicked down the road to the next Dáil.

At regular intervals in the past, the Dáil has managed to pass emergency legislation in a very short time. The bank guarantee was voted through after one late-night sitting while the sweeping legislation providing for a restructuring of the banking sector was passed in just four hours before Christmas.

Necessity has always been the mother of invention as far as getting emergency legislation through is concerned. Ways of getting the Finance Bill, or a truncated version of it, passed by next weekend or the early days of the following week, at the latest, can be found if it is the will of a majority in the Dáil to do it.

Fine Gael and Labour remained adamant yesterday that the Bill would have to be passed by Friday. One problem is that after its passage through the Dáil, the Finance Bill not only has to go to the Seanad but, because it is a money Bill, has to go back to the Dáil for final approval. That will make the Friday deadline difficult to achieve, but it should be possible to get it through by the middle of next week.

Brian Lenihan suggested that the Bill could be passed by Wednesday of next week and it should not be beyond the ingenuity of the Dáil parties to find a compromise to cover a few days. Finding a reasonable compromise will test the seriousness of all the parties and their commitment to the national interest.

If the Bill is actually passed by next Friday, an election could be held as early as Friday, February 18th. A more realistic date would be February 25th. That would allow for the Finance Bill timetable to go back to Wednesday week, allowing a formal election campaign of more than three weeks.

The sooner an election is held, the better for everyone. Brian Lenihan maintained yesterday that Fine Gael and Labour wanted a quick election to put Fianna Fáil at a disadvantage, but it is doubtful if it will make any difference to the party at this stage.

In fact it could do far more damage to Fianna Fáil if the party is seen to be spinning out the election process in its own interests.

A new leader will be installed on Wednesday and the party has nothing left to lose by going straight into the campaign with a new face on the poster.

Of course, Fianna Fáil has huge logistical problems to iron out and will be far less prepared for the campaign than the other parties. Candidates still have to be selected in some constituencies and it is not even clear if Brian Cowen will run in Offaly. However, its rearguard action will be based on the popularity of sitting TDs and candidates rather than on the brand name of the party, its policies or manifesto.

At this stage, Micheál Martin is the favourite to succeed to the Fianna Fail leadership, but Brian Lenihan will put up a stiff fight for the job. Éamon Ó Cuív and Mary Hanafin do not appear to have much chance of winning, so everything depends on whether Lenihan can recover lost ground among his parliamentary colleagues by Wednesday.

Lenihan gave an assured performance at his press conference yesterday. Finding agreement with the Opposition on a timetable for the Finance Bill and the election date would be a further demonstration of political skills that could bring wavering TDs over to his side.

With the 30th Dáil entering its final days and Fianna Fáil about to elect a new leader, the drama is far from over.

Stephen Collins is Political Editor

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