The role of the Opposition


Sir, – Stephen Collins criticises Labour and the Social Democrats for voting in favour of the Simon Coveney no-confidence motion (“Labour and Social Democrats are the losers in the Coveney confidence debate”, Opinion & Analysis, September 17th).

Your columnist says reasonably: “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”.

What, however, is the problem with two avowedly left-of-centre parties signalling their willingness to go into coalition with another, admittedly more populist, left-of-centre party after the next general election? In fact, I’d be more likely to vote for Labour or the Social Democrats knowing that they are prepared to facilitate a future potentially genuine left-wing Government.

Ireland has never had a truly left-wing government. The possibility of radical egalitarian economic change in our country in the near future is exciting.

What is Stephen Collins so afraid of? – Yours, etc,


Arbour Hill,

Dublin 7.

Sir, – In his eagerness never to miss an opportunity to criticise Sinn Féin, Stephen Collins betrays a misunderstanding of parliamentary opposition.

Of course Sinn Féin, Labour and the Social Democrats do not have confidence in Simon Coveney as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence. By definition, members of the Government do not enjoy the confidence of the Opposition. In the words of former British prime minister Edward Stanley, “The duty of an Opposition is very simple . . . to oppose everything and propose nothing”, although a party in Opposition which aspires to govern may find it politically advantageous to propose legislation that illustrates the policies it intends to enact in government – something Sinn Féin, Labour and the Social Democrats have done repeatedly.

As Stephen Collins points out, “The challenge facing the Coalition now is whether it can deliver on serious issues like housing, the budget and climate change”, but it should hardly come as a surprise that the Opposition does not have confidence in the Government to deliver on anything. That’s precisely why they oppose them. Fianna Fáil’s abstention in the vote of no confidence in Eoghan Murphy in December 2019 (which had been tabled by the Social Democrats, who were also criticised at the time as pulling a “political stunt”) was a clear indication that they were in sufficient agreement with Fine Gael on policy issues that they felt able to give confidence and supply to a Fine Gael minority government, and ultimately to enter coalition with them. Perhaps that’s why nobody outside the two parties can tell them apart.

Meanwhile, the parties that make up the Opposition are not in coalition with each other. That Labour and the Social Democrats oppose the Government for some of the same reasons as Sinn Féin indicates some policy compatibility that might lead them to enter government in coalition with Sinn Féin in future. But to argue that an Opposition party makes itself the “patsy” of another by voting no confidence in a Government it opposes is nonsense. Of course Labour and the Social Democrats could have abstained on the vote to “make a point”, but they obviously preferred to make the point that they (unsurprisingly for members of the Opposition) have no confidence in the Government.

A motion of no-confidence is not a “cheap publicity stunt” or “one-upmanship”, but a completely normal part of a parliamentary democracy like ours and a valuable function of the Opposition. It is equally normal that, in the ordinary course of events, the Government will rely on its parliamentary majority to win that motion. There is nothing here to justify the sorts of histrionics in your columnist’s piece.

As for the fact that a number of Independent TDs, who ostensibly sit in Opposition to the Government, were nonetheless willing to vote confidence in Mr Coveney, that might only serve to illustrate another of Edward Stanley’s aphorisms: “Definition of an independent Member of Parliament, viz one that could not be depended upon”. – Yours, etc,


School of Law,

Trinity College Dublin,

Dublin 2.