Tuesday 22 August 2017

Backbench pressure on Cowen over 'rebel' TDs

Demand for whip to be restored to 'independent' FF deputies

John Drennan

John Drennan

FIANNA Fail TDs are increasingly unhappy over the ongoing 'independent' status of the unprecedented number of party backbenchers who have either lost or resigned the party whip since Mr Cowen came to power.

In just over two years, five TDs -- Mattie McGrath, James McDaid, Joe Behan, Jimmy Devins and Eamon Scanlon -- have left the parliamentary party.

Their departures, the death of Seamus Brennan, the election of Pat 'the Cope' Gallagher to Europe and the resignation of Martin Cullen mean that with 70 TDs, Mr Cowen leads the smallest FF parliamentary party since Albert Reynolds won 68 seats in 1992.

Now, the ongoing erosion of FF seat numbers has fuelled a desire within the party to regularise the status of some 'independent FF' TDs.

"We need to start reining in the loose horses. We are going to need the critical mass of TDs for October and for what's coming,'' said a senior party source.

"When it comes to Mattie (McGrath) and the lads, they shouldn't be left loose for too long. Like the dog biting sheep, they might start getting into bad habits."

The Government has, in the absence of the three by-elections, a sustainable if makeshift majority. With the pledged support of 70 FF TDs, the Greens, the independent PDs, Jackie Healy-Rae and Michael Lowry, the Taoiseach only needs the support of one of his former TDs.

But there is an increasing sense of instability in the aftermath of the decision of two of its most embedded supporters, Jackie Healy-Rae and Michael Lowry, to cross the floor of the Dail and vote against the stag-hunting Bill.

This is certain to intensify if the Opposition wins the pending three by-elections, which would nullify the Government's current de facto lead of 84 to 78.

It would then be dependent on the long-term support of figures such as the increasingly embittered Mattie McGrath, the former Fine Gael minister Michael Lowry, James McDaid and the ever more independent-minded Noel Grealish.

In the wake of the dissolution of the PDs, there was strong speculation that Grealish was poised to join Fianna Fail. However, the independent PD has become detached to such an extent that last week he threatened to vote against the Government over health cuts.

Outside of the uncertain support of the other independent FF TDs, there are concerns over an increasingly unhappy group of TDs, such as Maire Hoctor, Mary Wallace, the former independent councillor Christy O'Sullivan and serial malcontents, such as Noel O'Flynn.

The current scenario is all the more surprising because when Bertie Ahern was elected as Taoiseach by 89 votes to 76, the FF, Green and PD Coalition enjoyed the largest majority since the FF-Labour Coalition of 1992.

Prior to that, the only Government with a comparable majority was the Jack Lynch administration of 1977.

The initial stability of the Coalition meant that Brian Cowen secured a similar majority to Bertie Ahern when he became Taoiseach.

However, the wheels began to come off the wagon in the autumn of 2008 as the death of Seamus Brennan was followed by the resignation of Joe Behan and James McDaid over budgetary cuts, while the independent TD Finian McGrath also withdrew his support from the Government.

Still, by the end of Mr Cowen's first year, the Government still enjoyed a healthy nine-seat majority.

However, the election of Pat 'the Cope' Gallagher to the EU Parliament deprived Mr Cowen of a now-critical Dail seat. Then in the autumn, Jimmy Devins and Eamon Scanlon left the party over the Sligo hospital controversy.

By the close of 2009, the Government, with 82 whipped supporters, still had a lead of five over the Opposition.

However, in the wake of the resignation of Martin Cullen from politics and the loss of the whip by Mattie McGrath, Mr Cowen now only commands the full support of 80 of the current 162 TDs.

This is the first time since the Haughey administration of 1987 to 1989 that a Government no longer has a working majority of whipped deputies.

Sunday Independent

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