When it comes to brokering deals with Independent TDs, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are no strangers.
Both parties would deny to the hilt any suggestion that special deals are struck in return for vital votes, but history tells another story.
In October 2006, when speculation was mounting the Progressive Democrats were prepared to bolt from government, Fianna Fáil began eyeing up the support of Independent TDs in order to stay in power.
Informal contacts were made, but in case there was any doubt about what the price of such support would be, the then Independent TD Paudge Connolly told RTÉ: “I was elected for Monaghan General Hospital to retain services at the hospital, and I would make it very clear to the government that that is my price for supporting it.”
Before the general election in February 2016, the then taoiseach and Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny insisted he would not use Independent TDs to help establish the next government.
What actually followed were months of torturous negotiations with a whole host of Independent TDs. At one stage, it was suggested they even held it within their power to pick which party – Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil – should lead a minority government.
Kenny suffered three chastening failed votes in the Dáil before he became taoiseach at the fourth attempt. During that last vote, TDs craned their necks around and checked their phones to see if the absent Independent Alliance members would finally get on board. Who will forget the image of Finian McGrath arriving in with moments to spare, playing the air guitar in a message that clearly said: Habemus Government.
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In 2018, none other than current Tánaiste Micheál Martin called on Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to publish details of any assistance given to Michael Lowry and other Independents in return for their support of that government.
There was no “written deal”, Varadkar said, before adding: “They do of course have access to the government in the same way all Independent deputies who support the government do. That means they are able to raise queries and issues, often relating to their constituency, on which we try to assist.”
This “does not constitute a deal”, Varadkar said.
“Of course it does,” shot back Martin in the Dáil.
This week, there will be no need for the publication of any deals with Independents. The Regional Independent Group (RIG) put their list of eight demands out there for everyone to see and the Government conceded on many of them in its countermotion on the ending of the eviction ban.
At least five major concessions were offered: changes to refurbishments schemes for vacant and derelict homes, tax breaks for landlords and renters, a semi-viable ‘Plan B’ for when the eviction ban lifts, changes to the rent-a-room scheme and, most controversially, major changes to the Fair Deal scheme.
This week, Varadkar tried to suggest that some of the group’s demands were in train already, but tell that to Minister of State for Older People Mary Butler.
Her Fianna Fáil colleague, Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien, went on RTÉ News at lunchtime on Wednesday effectively confirming plans to make changes to the scheme that would see the Government allow people in nursing homes to keep 100 per cent of any rental income generated by their homes.
This was news to her. She said she had not been contacted about it in advance and went on to raise a series of concerns.
In the end, some Independent TDs backed the Government against the Sinn Féin motion, others did not. Five members of the Regional Independent Group – Michael Lowry, Denis Naughten, Cathal Berry, Seán Canney and Matt Shanahan – voted with the Coalition, as did Rural Independent Group TD Danny Healy-Rae.
Another member of the Regional Independent Group, Wexford TD Verona Murphy, voted against the Government.
Now that Green Party rebel TD Neasa Hourigan has been suspended from Government for 15 months, the Coalition is down to a bare majority. This leaves it even more reliant on Independent votes, no matter what way it tries to paint it.
The RIG group sent a clear message to their fellow party-less TDs this week: there is power there to be grasped, if you know how to wield it. And they will wield it again, with a Labour vote of no confidence looming next week.
But just as quickly as they can give support, they can take it away.
At the end of 2019, a group of rural Independent TDs said they intended to put down a motion of no confidence in Simon Harris, who was minister for health at the time.
As a growing number of Independents deserted Fine Gael, the government realised it was reliant on the support of Noel Grealish, Denis Naughten and Michael Lowry for survival. Varadkar, who insisted he had the numbers despite mounting evidence that he did not, never let it get that far. He called an election in January 2020.
History could yet repeat itself if the Government sees any more TDs going overboard in the coming 15 months.