Labour and Social Democrats are the losers in the Coveney confidence debate

Stephen Collins: Both parties missed chance to differentiate themselves from Sinn Féin

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has survived a Dáil motion of no confidence by 92 votes to 59. In a speech prior to the vote Coveney lashed out at Sinn Féin, accusing the party of "reinforcing a false narrative of cronyism."

 

The Coalition’s emphatic victory in the Dáil motion of confidence in the Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney could mark a decisive turning point in its fortunes. But only if the right lessons are learned and the three parties focus unremittingly on the big issues facing the country and put an end to cheap publicity stunts and attempted one-upmanship.

When it came to the crunch, the Government won the confidence motion by a truly decisive majority of 92 votes to 59. This was because the three Coalition parties were joined in the division lobbies by a range of Independents who, in the final analysis, were not prepared to be used as patsies by Sinn Féin.

The vote reflected not simply the wide esteem in which Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence Simon Coveney is held, despite his acknowledged mistake, but the clearly expressed view of a majority of TDs that the country has much bigger issues to worry about than the botched appointment of Katherine Zappone to a minor lobbying role.

The challenge facing the Coalition now is whether it can deliver on serious issues like housing, the budget and climate change and avoid missteps on the minor issues that will inevitably arise at regular intervals.

The Dáil vote roughly reflected the mood of the electorate as revealed in successive opinion polls. Sinn Féin and its allies got the support of 37 per cent of Dáil deputies but over 60 per cent backed Coveney.

The lesson here is that there is a clear anti-Sinn Féin majority in the Dáil and outside it when the chips are down. It means that, in spite of all the predictions, there is nothing inevitable about Sinn Féin taking power after the next election. It may well happen, but only if the Coalition fails to deliver on the issues of concern to a majority of people and, most importantly, if it loses its nerve.

What the confidence debate showed was that when their backs were to the wall the Coalition parties were capable of putting up a fight and winning the reluctant support of others.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin kicked it off with the assertion that the motion of confidence was being debated because one party had decided it was a handy way to get publicity and deliver populist, partisan attacks. He accused Mary Lou McDonald of statements that were “breathtaking in their cynicism and the double standards involved.”

Abstention would have been a way of making the point that they are not in the pockets of either the Coalition or Sinn Féin

The theme was taken up by Leo Varadkar, Coveney and a range of Fine Gael speakers who gave Sinn Féin as good as they got. It was a raucous, ill-tempered debate with Fine Gael and Sinn Féin trading insults and straying far from the point at issue.

Probably the best speech on the Fine Gael side came from Heather Humphreys who made no bones about admitting it had not been her party’s finest hour.

“We have nobody to blame for that but ourselves. It is important we acknowledge that tonight. This is not the fault of Fianna Fáil or the Green Party. This was Fine Gael who dropped the ball. We admit that here tonight. When you make a mistake you hold your hands up and admit that you got it wrong.”

Humble response

This humble response, not usually associated with Fine Gael, was entirely appropriate given the mess into which they dragged their Coalition partners. A bit more of the same in future might help to cement the relationship between the three Coalition parties in the face of the persistent attacks they will inevitably face, no matter how well they perform on the big issues.

A notable feature of the controversy was the way Fianna Fáil held its nerve in the face of a crisis not of its own making, with Martin displaying the leadership qualities required in a Taoiseach. The party did lose Sligo TD Marc MacSharry but that was inevitably going to happen at some stage given his persistent criticism of the leader. The fact that some other clearly unhappy TDs held the line gives the party a vital breathing space.

On the Opposition side, Sinn Féin delivered the kind of aggressive performance that will delight most of its supporters. It emerged from the debate having enhanced its standing as the clear leader of the Opposition in the Dáil, setting the agenda and the tone for others on that side to follow.

The tame acceptance of the Sinn Féin lead by the Labour Party and the Social Democrats does not augur well for their future prospects. Ivana Bacik’s victory in the Dublin Bay South byelection indicated that Labour had an opportunity to carve out a distinctive role and identity for itself but instead it opted to join Sinn Féin and the Trotskyists in the outrage stakes. Labour’s stance looked even sillier in light of the fact that Bacik was one of the guests at the infamous Zappone event in the Merrion Hotel.

Nobody would have expected Labour or the Social Democrats to vote confidence in Coveney but, given the relatively minor nature of the issue involved, abstention would have been a way of making the point that they are not in the pockets of either the Coalition or Sinn Féin. The only conclusion now is that both parties will be happy to put Sinn Féin into power after the next election if the numbers add up.

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