Ireland is hurtling towards a General Election. Things seem to have escalated rapidly and both side of the Dáil have drawn the battle lines. Barring a sudden moment of clarity on the part of our politicians, we will have a General Election before Christmas, an election that according to both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, neither of them wants. The question is how did we get here and what happens next?
The irony of the Government being collapsed over an email after all the trouble emails caused last year during the USA Presidential election is lost on no one. The crux of this current crisis is when the then Minister for Justice and Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald first received an email informing her of the strategy being taken by the Garda legal team in the O’Higgins Commission against Maurice McCabe, which was in effect to undermine his credibility as a whistle-blower.
In November in response a question from Labour TD Alan Kelly Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that the Government only became aware of the strategy in 2016. However an email emerged from May 2015 that showed the Ms Fitzgerald was in fact aware of the strategy a full year earlier. It appears at this time that Mr Varadkar was unaware of this email at the time but that the current Minister for Justice Charles Flanagan was aware at the time of the Taoiseach’s statements to the Dáil. Mr Flanagan still allowed the Taoiseach to mislead the Dáil .
This failure to disclose to the Dáil the correct timeline has been seen by the opposition as deliberate and evidence of a conspiracy in the Government to discredit Mr McCabe. The story coming from the former Minister for Justice the Department of Justice and the Taoiseach weren’t lining up with different times being suggested for when the various parties were in fact informed. The whole situation began to escape the control of the Government.
Motions of no Confidence
On Thursday the 23rd Sinn Féin declared they were unsatisfied with the Tánaiste’s answers regarding the controversy and tabled a motion of no confidence in her. Because of the way motions of no confidence work in Ireland, if the motion were to pass the Government would collapse leading to a General Election.
Micheál Martin the leader of Fianna Fáil found himself in a bind. On one side he had the Confidence and Supply agreement with Fine Gael which was set to run for another year. On the other he had his own Parliamentary party who weren’t content to hold up the Fine Gael government anymore. After a day of back and forth and attempts to compromise both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil dug in. Fianna Fáil demanded the resignation of the Tánaiste or they would vote against her. Fine Gael in a late-night meeting confirmed that the party was going to back her and not seek her resignation.
With both sides now on course for an election neither wants, they are stuck in a game of chicken. Fine Gael can’t back down without sacrificing one of their own and Fianna Fáil can’t back down without losing the support of the party and appearing like they can’t hold Fine Gael to account. Worst of all even if a solution is found, the Trust that underpins the Confidence and Supply agreement is gone.
The timing of this election couldn’t be worse. There are numerous piece of vital legislation that need to pass before the Christmas recess. This is coupled with the major EU summit on December 15th to decide if the Brexit negotiations can proceed to the next stage. Finally there is the work of the committee on the 8th which would be delayed or irreparably damaged by the collapse of the Government.
The Dáil currently need to pass legislation to enable spending for next year known as the Appropriations Act. Without this no spending can take place in 2018 there is a slim chance of a Government being in place in time. The work of the Committee on the 8th Amendment that is due to finish in the 20th of December will also be halted and there exists a possibility that it will not be revived after a General Election depending on who is in power. Fianna Fáil members have already voted to retain the 8th at their party conference last month and the Sinn Féin position is very narrowly pro-choice.
Finally, there is Brexit, the single biggest issue on the Government’s plate at the moment. There is an EU summit on the 15th of December to decide whether or not “sufficient progress” has been made to allow negotiations to progress. The remaining EU countries have said that they will follow Ireland’s lead on whether enough work as been done to address the problems surrounding the Ireland/ Northern Ireland Boarder. If an election is called Leo Varadkar would have to attend this summit during the election campaign which could politically limit him from making serious decisions.
Who wants this?
Politically holding a Christmas election is a nightmare for all involved. Volunteers will be harder to mobilise in the dark Winter months and people less receptive to opening doors. Fine Gael as the current Government will be facing into an election with Homeless people out in the freezing streets and a Winter Health crisis they will no doubt be blamed for.
Fianna Fáil aren’t much better off. They aren’t leading in the polls and would have to overcome Varadkar’s popularity with the electorate. They will also be open to attacks for breaking the Confidence and Supply arrangement and possibly even questions about why they haven’t done more to force the Government into compromises before this point.
Sinn Féin are the ones who first put down the motion of no confidence, but they could well be staring into an election much earlier than they would like. At the Ard Fheis on the 17th and 18th of November they laid out how current party leader Gerry Adams would be replaced next year. Mr Adams has frequently been cited as a block on Sinn Féin increasing its electoral support and his retirement was seen as a chance for the party to break through to a wider audience. This election will happen before Mr Adams can be replaced and therefore could be a limit on their support which according to polls has been dropping since the last General Election.
Labour, the Green Party the Social Democrats and Solidarity/ PBP all find themselves all in the same boat. All are polling below 10% on average and seem more concerned with competing with each other. Labour are in the most precarious position with a number of their current TD’s barely making it over the line last time.
No one wants this election, but common sense seems to have left the room. Unless it returns party activists may find Christmas is cancelled, and the public will get to watch as the country drifts from crisis to crisis with no one at the wheel.
EDIT: It has been announced that should there be a General Election Mary Lou McDonald will lead Sinn Féin into it (15:17)
Aaron Bowman – Politics Editor