News Fionnan Sheahan

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Fionnan Sheahan: Government faces exit poll as stalling tactic backfires

Published 04/11/2010 | 05:00

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THE Government only has itself to blame. Coming up to a vital period in the economic history of the country, the Coalition now has to run a by-election because it got caught out.

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There was ample time over the past 17 months to hold the vote in Donegal South-West. When Taoiseach Brian Cowen asked Pat 'the Cope' Gallagher to run for the European Parliament in May 2008, he was aware a by-election would most likely be needed.

Gallagher was elected as an MEP, but the Coalition chose not to replace him in the Dail.

The resignations of George Lee in Dublin South and Martin Cullen in Waterford in the early part of this year added to pressure to fill the vacancies in the Dail.

Throughout the spring, summer and autumn, the Government stalled.

Unlike the death of a TD, where a respectful delay is observed, these gaps were caused by deputies voluntarily standing down.

And yet the by-elections were continually kicked to touch by Fianna Fail and the Greens.

Only when Sinn Fein senator Pearse Doherty took the strategically astute move of seeking to get the courts to force the Government's hands did the Coalition begin to budge.

Doherty succeeded in getting a hearing in the High Court, arguing there was a constitutional right to have adequate representation.

Turning down yet another demand from the opposition, Government Chief Whip John Curran announced six weeks ago that the Government would hold all three by-elections in the spring.

He said that the Government was putting off the by-elections to next year to firstly "clear the major upcoming economic hurdles".

"It is with that in mind that it is the Government's intention to move the writs for the by-elections in the first quarter of 2011," he told the Dail in late September.

The Taoiseach suddenly started to differentiate between the three votes in recent weeks. He guaranteed the Donegal South-West vote would definitely be held in the spring.

Yet, he surprisingly failed to commit to the same date for the other two votes in Dublin South and Waterford. No doubt Cowen was trying not to offend the courts, pending the ruling on the High Court challenge, but he may also have had an inkling of the likely outcome.

The fallback position, if the court case went bad, was to simply hold the Donegal South-West vote and kick to touch on the other by-elections. Dr James McDaid's resignation in Donegal North-East merely added to the confusion.

The Government has now been confronted with the worst of both worlds: forced to hold the by-election in the middle of the preparations for the Budget, following the publication of the four-year plan.

The by-election decision actually puts the focus on the passing of the Budget. And it will beg the question for some coalition TDs: why bother?

The Budget will cut €6bn from the deficit in spending reductions and tax hikes. It will be regarded as one of the most savage in the history of the State.

The holding of the by-election will probably further reduce the Government's majority in the Dail to just two.

In the new year the Government will have to hold further by-elections in Dublin South and Waterford, allied to a clamour for that in Donegal North-East to also be held.

WHEN those seats are filled, the game is effectively up for this Government. There will be some who will wonder where's the advantage in incurring ever greater wrath from the electorate only to have to go the polls in a general election in the spring.

The public has made its mind up on Fianna Fail's culpability in the creation of the economic crisis.

And the party is guilty as charged.

Fianna Fail's only hope of any salvation is to be able to claim it took the decisions to begin to repair the public finances.

The Leinster House rumour mill went into overdrive last night as opposition parties and Government backbenchers alike speculated that yesterday was the end and Cowen would actually just call a general election now.

Finance Minister Brian Lenihan's comments a day earlier appeared to sum up the Government's rationale in not going to the people.

"I find it very difficult to see how we can have a general election in the midst of the type of international financial difficulties we are facing at the moment and how it will assist us in any way," he said.

A series of strange events saw the Government lose another TD and lose a court case that will result in its majority being whittled down further. There's only so many setbacks it can take.

The loss of a vote in the Seanad last night proves how cautious the Government needs to be on a daily basis.

Today, Lenihan will confirm the €6bn scale of the package -- twice the previous figure. The Coalition's task is not going to get easier.

fsheahan@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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