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With weeks of political stalemate ahead, who is running the country?

With Ireland facing a spell of political purgatory, we lift the lid on just how the government is functioning

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Photo: Frank McGrath

Photo: Frank McGrath

End of an era: Shane Ross with wife Ruth Buchanan after he was eliminated in the Dublin Rathdown constituency

End of an era: Shane Ross with wife Ruth Buchanan after he was eliminated in the Dublin Rathdown constituency

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Photo: Frank McGrath

FINE Gael and the independents will remain in power, but paralysed until a deal is struck on a new coalition.

While the electorate may have voted for ‘change’, the fragmented outcome of Election 2020 has led to immediate stagnation.

It means that if a new revelation were to emerge about the FAI scandal then Shane Ross would be in the hot seat.

Over in the Department of Social Protection – which is grappling with major pension reforms – Regina Doherty is still at the levers.

And defeated Wexford TD Michael D’Arcy must continue his work on insurance reform, even though he’s no longer in the Dáil.

In total, 13 out 30 senior and junior ministers were rejected by the electorate on February 8. They are no longer TDs.

However, Article 28.11.2 of the Constitution states: “The members of the Government in office at the date of a dissolution of Dáil Éireann shall continue to hold office until their successors shall have been appointed.”

It is open to outgoing ministers to down tools and vacate their offices, but the more likely scenario is that they will continue working – albeit in a relatively low-profile way.

On the other hand, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar must continue to represent Ireland on the international stage for the foreseeable future.

He will travel to Brussels on Thursday for what is expected to be an acrimonious EU Council meeting as leaders try to figure out their post-Brexit budgets.

The UK’s withdrawal has left a huge €75bn hole in the budget for the next seven years, 2021 to 2027.

Irish farmers are particularly worried about possible cuts to the Common Agriculture Policy – and despite admitted he lost the election, Mr Varadkar will be the man at the table defending their interests.

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Before he takes off on the government jet, the Fine Gael leader will first have to sit through a Dáil session where Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil are likely to try to unseat him.

Neither will have the numbers to elect Mary Lou McDonald or Micheál Martin as Taoiseach, meaning Mr Varadkar will stay in-situ by default.

“We were defeated in this election, there is no point in trying to dress that up in any way,” the Dublin West TD said last week.

“It may have been a tight finish, but we were defeated. So that means that people are saying to us that Fine Gael should go into opposition and we are absolutely willing to do that.”

Which is fine, except that he can’t right now – and as the number-crunching continue, you couldn’t rule out Fine Gael being part of a grand coalition when this all ends.

Mr Varadkar has said that until a new government is formed, all the ministers and ministers of state will continue to fulfil their duties as they are required to under the Constitution.

Ministers – including six who are no longer TDs – will continue to attend Cabinet meetings and discuss affairs of State.

But the Taoiseach has already promised they won’t make any major financial or policy decisions. In other words, they won’t be launching any legislative initiatives or announcing billions for new projects.

If this period of instability drags then it’s almost inevitable that they will have to react to ‘events’, be they domestic or international.

Where a significant decision cannot be put on the long finger, Mr Varadkar plans to consult with the leaders of the other main parties before signing off on a direction of travel.

One complication is that ministers are “responsible to Dáil Éireann”, but those who lost their seats are no longer members of the House.

They could be called before Oireachtas committees to answer for their actions – but, if we’re honest, normal politics has been suspended.

When the electorate threw up a similarly difficult result in 2016, it took 70 days for Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil to reach a deal on confidence and supply that allowed Enda Kenny form a new government. It’s worth recalling that back then most of the debate was around water charges.

During that period the Dáil sat 12 times, including the three attempts it took for Mr Kenny to be re-elected as Taoiseach.

For the most part TDs made “statements” on topics that had gotten the electorate excited during the campaign.

These included insurance costs, health reform, crime statistics, housing and Dáil reform.

There were also expressions of sympathy following the Brussels terror attack – but nothing by way of legislation.

The politicians were being fully paid during this period.

With Fine Gael insisting that they will only talk to Fianna Fáil as a “last resort” to avoid another election, this new impasse could run for weeks yet.

In the meantime, Shane Ross, Katherine Zappone, Regina Doherty, Sean Kyne, Mary Mitchell O’Connor, Pat Byrne, Catherine Byrne, Andrew Doyle, Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran and Michael D’Arcy will continue to have access to their departmental offices and staff.

So too will the ministers who ‘retired’ from politics before the election: Finian McGrath, John Halligan and Jim Daly. They are effectively trapped in their jobs until the stalemate is resolved.

One date worth watching for is St Patrick’s Day. The White House will be expecting the leader of the Irish government for the annual ‘meet and greet’ with the American president.

As things stand, Mr Varadkar will be the one in the Oval Office hoping Donald Trump doesn’t call him a “loser”.


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