The fragility of the minority Government was exposed this week when Minister of State John Halligan said he would "probably" vote for a Sinn Féin motion seeking the immediate abolition of water charges. Some blunt talking and the intervention of Fine Gael minister Simon Coveney convinced Mr Halligan that his freedom as an Independent TD was now trumped by collegiate responsibility.
He had signed up to a programme for government and was now required to support it. Earlier, Minister of State Finian McGrath had been obliged to pay water charges in order to remain in government while Mr Halligan avoided that political humiliation only because he was not liable for the charge.
Mr Halligan is not a political neophyte. He served in the Dáil as an Independent TD for five years and is well aware of the system of collective responsibility. A temporary dalliance with the Sinn Féin motion may have been designed for local consumption, but it brought him national publicity.
When the dust settled, Mr Halligan paraded his achievement in securing funding for local hospital cardiac services and for airport development as justification for supporting a temporary suspension of water charges, pending commission findings. So much for the national interest!
It is difficult for Independent TDs who built their careers on populist politics to make the transition to government because of a lack of party support. The semi-detached nature of their commitment has been reflected in their failure to follow their Fine Gael colleagues in expressing confidence – however qualified – in Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan. Such an a la carte approach to controversial issues is likely to have a destabilising effect on Government.
This may be exacerbated by conditional, support-based demands from Fianna Fáil and by full-blooded assaults from opposition benches. In spite of talk about a new kind of politics and the growing influence of the Dáil, it is difficult to find reasons to believe this Government will be either effective or durable. The fear of another election will concentrate minds but maybe not for long.