A row on rental strategy that underlines the fragility of the Government

High-octane argument damaged relationships and exposed Fianna Fáil as having over-played its hand

 

When private rental accommodation is more expensive than at the peak of the housing boom in 2007, controls are required in a dysfunctional housing market. Minister for Housing Simon Coveney proposed to limit rent increases to 4 per cent in Dublin and Cork from January 1st, with the prospect of extending these “rent pressure zones” to other cities and towns at a later stage.

He was immediately challenged by Fianna Fáil to reduce the rent cap and expand the areas affected. The high-octane argument that followed damaged relationships and exposed Fianna Fáil as having over-played its hand.

As Gerry Adams so elegantly put it in the Dáil: “New politics, my arse”. It involved what Micheál Martin once dismissed as a Punch and Judy show. Fianna Fáil had thrown down a public challenge to Fine Gael over which party really controlled the Government’s agenda and Sinn Féin was, once again, being excluded from the debate.

Having succeeded in blocking water charges, Fianna Fáil believed Mr Coveney would roll over on rent control legislation. It didn’t happen. Rather than take dictation from Fianna Fáil he withdrew the Bill and, through that unilateral action, may have shortened the lifespan of the minority Government.

This was grand political posturing. From the outset, the parties accused one another of bad faith. Fianna Fáil miscalculated in thinking Fine Gael was so dependent on its “confidence and supply” agreement that it could dictate policy. Having lost ground to Fianna Fáil in recent opinion polls, however, Fine Gael was driven to demonstrate it controlled the legislative agenda.

For Fianna Fáil, an angry reaction from tenants in Dublin and Cork if the protective legislation was not passed was a key consideration because a return to power could depend on the Dublin vote.

So party engines went into reverse. Negotiations resumed. And agreement was reached to include Limerick, Waterford and Galway from early next year. This time, compromise suited both parties. But it has, once again, exposed the Government’s fragility.

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