As Government Ministers return to Leinster House from their St Patrick’s Day missions this week, the controversial decision to lift the eviction ban remains at the top of the political agenda.
On Wednesday evening TDs will vote on the issue in the Dáil after Sinn Féin tabled a motion aimed at putting maximum pressure on the Government nine days before the moratorium on evictions is due to expire on a phased basis.
The main Opposition party is calling for the ban to be extended until 2024. As a private members’ motion it is non-binding even if it passes, and Sinn Féin is well aware of this. In addition, the Dáil is unlikely to vote directly on Sinn Féin’s proposal, and would instead probably vote on a Government countermotion due to be discussed by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Tánaiste Micheál Martin and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan on Monday night.
However, by forcing the Dáil vote on such a highly contentious and emotive issue Sinn Féin is making life uncomfortable for Government backbench TDs and Independents alike.
Green Party TD Neasa Hourigan has already indicated she will vote with Sinn Féin against the Coalition – a move that would most likely see her lose the party whip once again at the very least. This would bring the Government’s numbers down to 80, leaving it with an official majority of just one TD.
[ Healy-Rae joins ranks voting against Government on eviction ban ]
Another Green TD, Patrick Costello, has within the last fortnight suggested that the eviction ban should continue. He is yet to declare publicly whether he will back the Government in Wednesday’s vote. Costello previously lost his party whip for six months, along with Hourigan, after they voted in favour of a Sinn Féin motion on the National Maternity Hospital.
Should any more Government TDs vote with the Opposition on Wednesday the Coalition will lose its Dáil majority. But that does not necessarily mean it will lose the vote as several Independent TDs often back the Government. It also does not mean the Coalition cannot govern.
The fact the Government also frequently gets the support of various Independents has ensured it had a comfortable working majority even during the six months of ostensibly minority Government in 2022.
Last July – after the departure from the Government benches of former Fine Gael TD Joe McHugh – the Coalition comfortably won a confidence motion tabled by Sinn Féin by 85 votes to 66. McHugh voted with the Government as did Hourigan and Costello, who were suspended from the Green parliamentary party at the time.
In December – after Hourigan and Costello were back in the fold – the Dáil voted confidence in Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien by 86 votes to 63.
While some Independents like Kerry’s Michael Healy-Rae have said they will vote against the Government on Wednesday, others are keeping their cards close to their chest for now.
TDs from the eight-member Regional Independent Group – which contains high-profile deputies like Denis Naughten, Michael Lowry, Verona Murphy and Cathal Berry – have backed the Government in key Dáil votes in the past. Members of the group who spoke to The Irish Times on Monday remained undecided on how they will vote on Wednesday, suggesting they are waiting until they see what the Government puts on the table in response to the Sinn Féin motion.
The Government remains confident its countermotion will pass. The vote will, however, provide an opportunity for Sinn Féin to embarrass the Government and it looks set to chip away at its already precarious majority. This would have the effect of making the Government more vulnerable on key Dáil votes and more reliant on Independents to stay in power.
The possible motion of no confidence which the Labour Party has said it will put down before the end of the month if the Coalition does not change course on the eviction ban is one such key vote where all eyes will be on the Independents.
Dáil votes on this autumn’s budget are also in the must-win category if the Coalition is to stay in office. Ever-tighter numbers could offer Independent TDs leverage to seek to make deals for their constituencies in return for their support.
While governments have been sustained by the support of Independents before, relying on them to survive long-term is a headache the Coalition could do without.