Taoiseach's authority eroded after a miserable 48 hours for Government
Published 06/07/2016 | 02:30
The Dáil chamber proved to be a lonely place for Taoiseach Enda Kenny yesterday as he was strongly criticised, openly lectured and even ridiculed by Opposition TDs.
Following a miserable Monday which saw DUP leader Arlene Foster issue a humiliating slap-down, it quickly became clear that Tuesday would prove to be equally as bleak for the Fine Gael leader.
Mr Kenny faced his Cabinet colleagues at their weekly meeting in Government Buildings, during which, begrudgingly, he allowed his Independent ministers a free vote on abortion.
In a clear attempt to re-assert his authority, the Taoiseach insisted that the Attorney General Máire Whelan was the legal adviser to the Government and that her opinion should be respected.
Sources present said the Taoiseach warned his ministers that they had a "duty in terms of the Constitution" and that he did not intend to allow a free vote on sensitive issues into the future.
Nonetheless, by caving in to the demands of Shane Ross and Finian McGrath, Mr Kenny has allowed a scenario whereby Independent ministers will defy the advice of the Government's own legal adviser and vote in favour of legislation that is deemed to be unconstitutional.
The bizarre outcome from the Cabinet meeting is that no position was taken.
A memo from the Health Minister Simon Harris was noted and Mr Kenny confirmed that no whip would apply.
"Kenny warned that he will not tolerate more and more of these free votes," a source said.
Nonetheless, Mr Kenny's capitulation to the demands of Shane Ross in relation to Mick Wallace's bill on fatal foetal abnormalities has infuriated party colleagues and potentially undermined the AG's position.
That very point would be raised in the Dáil later in the day by the Labour Party.
During Leader's Questions, however, Micheál Martin raised what he felt was a more pressing issue than Independents being given a free vote. The Fianna Fáil leader wanted to know why a proposal to establish an all-island Brexit forum had been shot down.
More importantly, Mr Martin queried why the idea had not been formally communicated to political figures, such as First Minister Arlene Foster.
"In essence, that conveyed a perception of something of a shambles, of an incoherent all-island response to 'Brexit', which constitutes such a severe threat to trade and to the economic wellbeing of the people of this island," Mr Martin said.
Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams joined the criticism, insisting that the DUP was needed to set up such a body.
But Mr Kenny insisted that he would not allow a scenario whereby stakeholders would be divided on the issue.
"If I proceed ahead to set up a forum that is not participated in by other parties, it is divisive," Mr Kenny said. "That is not in the interests of the people of Ireland, North and South."
While the issue of the disastrous efforts to establish the forum were debated within the chamber, the blame game within the Government was escalating.
Well-placed sources have revealed that Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan and his senior officials in Iveagh House knew nothing about the plan, which has now fallen flat on its face.
In fact, there is major disquiet that one of the Government's most junior ministers, Dara Murphy, was first to float the idea - despite Mr Flanagan having no say in it whatsoever.
Last night, Fine Gael TD John Deasy said it painted an extraordinary picture of the way that this Government is being run.
"The lack of foresight and preparation displayed whilst dealing with the issues in the North in last couple of days can only be described as shambolic," Mr Deasy said in remarks that were echoed privately by ministers and deputies alike.
"It is clear now that the Department of Foreign Affairs knew nothing about this and played no role," he added.
Back in the Dáil chamber, Mr Kenny's day went from bad to worse.
Questions were raised over the appointment of his chief economic advisor, Andrew McDowell, to a €270,000 position with the European Investment Bank.
And Mr Kenny was forced to deny suggestions by Labour's Alan Kelly and Micheál Martin that special arrangements had been struck with Independent TD Michael Lowry in return for his support.
Quickly enough, there was another crisis to contain: Mr Kenny had just been informed that the chairman of the water commission, Joe O'Toole, was resigning.
But in the end, the Taoiseach was not going to be let off the hook for allowing the Independent Alliance a free vote on abortion.
Last night, backbenchers from Fine Gael were letting their anger be known.
Pat Deering accused Mr Ross of "a la carte politics", while Kate O'Connell questioned why the Independents were voting in an "irresponsible" manner.
Alan Farrell accused the alliance of staging a "political stunt", adding that the bill was "unconstitutional" and that it made "little sense" to support it.
But in the Dáil, the Labour leader said that this was an issue of constitutional importance. The Attorney-General was the legal adviser to the State, Brendan Howlin said, and yet Mr Kenny was prepared to allow ministers to disregard her view.
"What is even more extraordinary is that this has not caused the Taoiseach to bat an eyelid," Mr Howlin added.
Redeeming himself somewhat, Mr Kenny said he held the constitutional clause in relation to the AG in the utmost of regard.
Unfortunately for him, the regard and respect in which he is held in the eyes of his colleagues has been eroded greatly over the course of just 48 hours.