Irish Politics: A study in instability
Disunity in government and dissension in Fine Gael is not in the national interest at this critical time
Enda Kenny has served notice of his intention to quit as Taoiseach but has not set the date of his departure. Were he to do so, his political authority would be rapidly eroded as the race to succeed him began. Undoubtedly, Mr Kenny’s position has been weakened by a poor general election result and by his mishandling of some recent issues.
He miscalculated the likely reaction of unionists to his proposal of an all-Ireland forum on Brexit. He erred in re-appointing Dr James Reilly as deputy leader of Fine Gael to the annoyance of some in the parliamentary party. Mr Kenny’s failure to secure a united cabinet position on a private members’ bill – to allow for abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality – further weakened his authority.
Indeed, some of these uncharacteristic misjudgments are likely to have contributed to Fine Gael’s decline in support and Fianna Fáil’s sharp rise in the recent Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll.
However Mr Kenny has not been well served – either by some in his own party or by some of his ministerial colleagues in government. Fine Gael has always prided itself on its willingness to serve the national interest and to put country before party.
Some backbenchers, in calling publicly for “new leadership”, are challenging his authority at a critical time. A minority Fine Gael-led government is struggling to come to terms with the negative implications of Britain’s Brexit decision.
As one of the EU’s longest serving leaders, the Taoiseach has sought to convince both German chancellor Angela Merkel and Britain’s new prime minister, Theresa May, of the unique difficulties that Brexit poses for Ireland. But the public evidence of disunity in government and of dissension in Fine Gael on his continued leadership only serve to undermine those efforts.
Ministers in government are not only obliged by the Constitution “to meet and act as a collective authority”. They are expected to act responsibly. The Independent Alliance failed to do either by voting for the private members’ bill and against their Cabinet colleagues.
In doing so they rejected both the advice of the Attorney General that the bill was unconstitutional and ignored that of the State’s chief medical officer that it was unworkable. The Taoiseach, to his political cost, defused the crisis by not insisting on a Government decision on the bill.
The Fine Gael-led government has a limited agreement with Fianna Fáil which will be reviewed in 2018. This allows Fianna Fáil exercise influence and control over what the Government does.
The minority government also finds itself reliant on Independent Alliance as a partner that has both a presence in government and a voice in opposition – on selective issues. A defining test of this minority Government’s solidarity and cohesiveness awaits in the October budget.