Thursday 27 October 2016

If Chief Whip Doherty doesn't hold her nerve, this Government is truly toast

Published 10/05/2016 | 02:30

Government Chief Whip: Regina Doherty. Photo: Tom Burke
Government Chief Whip: Regina Doherty. Photo: Tom Burke
They might be the Fine Gael top tier, but they’re not the most important ministers sitting around the Cabinet table.

Move over Simon Coveney, Leo Varadkar, Frances Fitzgerald, Michael Noonan and Paschal Donohoe. They might be the Fine Gael top tier, but they're not the most important ministers sitting around the Cabinet table.

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That responsibility falls on the shoulders of first-time minister Regina Doherty. Given the Dáil numbers, her role as Chief Whip is absolutely crucial. If she does her job well, the new administration has a chance. If she doesn't - or, as is more likely, is simply unable to effectively carry out the role - then the Government will be toast.

Never before has a Chief Whip faced such a daunting challenge. Her predecessor, Paul Kehoe, could count on the support of almost 70pc of the last Dáil's TDs for any vote. Doherty can factor in the automatic backing of less than 40pc - and that's assuming all the Independents who voted for Kenny last Friday hold their nerve.

Seamus Brennan was the last Chief Whip of a minority government. And, while he did an excellent job, he only had to worry about the 81 government deputies and four Independent TDs, whose focus was solely on constituency matters.

Doherty, by necessity, will have to cast the net far wider. She'll have to build relationships across the floor of the house to ensure the Government can function. Adapting Brennan's line about government being "senior hurling", each piece of legislation will be like a Munster championship game. It's win or bust. Nothing can be taken for granted. She and the Government will be getting battered from all sides. All what'll matter is staying ahead on the scoreboard.

They know a fair bit about championship play in Doherty's home county of Meath, or at least they used to. Doherty, who impressed in her first Dáil term, should be well suited to the role. She is intelligent and charming, but there is also a steely side to her. She's not slow about fighting her corner, as she showed when responding to David Norris and his ill-judged 'Regina Monologues' quip.

But, like so many of her colleagues in Fine Gael and Labour, she could also be withering about the opposition in the last Dáil - a little too withering at times. Doherty spoke on Sunday about some TDs being "pretty arrogant with their views". That may be true but there was an unbearable arrogance and self-righteousness at times from the last government. Opposition speakers were routinely drowned out by heckling that at times suggested some government TDs felt they weren't worthy of having a hearing. There's also a case to be made for Enda Kenny being the most partisan Taoiseach of the past 50 years.

A more nuanced approach will clearly be required in this Dáil and Doherty will have to manage that.

It won't be easy. Fianna Fáil will be desperate to carve out a separate identity - distancing itself from the Government - and that will mean dishing out fairly regular skelps to Fine Gael. At times, Doherty is going to have to just grin and bear it - not react. A feisty operator, one gets a sense that won't come naturally to her. But her professional relationship with her Fianna Fáil counterpart will be one of the most important relationships of this Dáil. Labour, fighting for its political survival, won't be any easier to deal with, particularly if Alan Kelly - not a man whose style is...ahem...suited to consensus politics - is leader.

In contrast, Eamon Ryan is wired for exactly this type of set-up and will probably meet the Government half-way down the road on many issues. It's impossible to know what to expect from the Social Democrats, but the leadership troika's lack of involvement in coalition talks doesn't augur well.

And Doherty can forget about getting anything constructive from Sinn Féin or the AAA/PBP group; it will be old-style opposition politics all the way to the next general election, with the possible exception of any moves to have a referendum on the Eighth Amendment. Some of the left-wing Independents - the likes of Clare Daly and Mick Wallace - may be open to supporting some pieces of legislation that they would see as progressive. But it will be quite a juggling act. Doherty will need to be all things to all men and women in the Dáil. At times, she will have to be unpopular with her own colleagues in Fine Gael, as they will be needed for every vote.

The worry is that regardless of what skills and acumen she brings to the role, it won't be enough. Talk this week of the Government dismantling the HSE, with hospitals being run by trusts, are an early sign of what potentially lies ahead. Fianna Fáil has said it doesn't support such a move. Unless Sinn Féin is willing to row in behind the measure - which seems unlikely - then it's impossible to see how the Government could get Dáil backing for it. Regardless of the pros and cons of scrapping the HSE, that's a hugely difficult position for any administration to be in. The potential for constant gridlock is a very real one.

Much will depend on Fianna Fáil. It can't credibly oppose every piece of legislation. But equally it can't be perceived to be subservient to Fine Gael - as Sinn Féin and the AAA-PBP will look to portray it. Micheál Martin is by nature suited to consensus but, with his stance on Irish Water, he also showed a hard edge that indicates he will do what it takes to protect Fianna Fáil's interests.

Doherty's going to have her work cut out - for however long the 32nd Dáil lasts.

Shane Coleman presents the Sunday Show on at 10am

Irish Independent

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