Gormley warned on cost to taxpayer of by-election case
ENVIRONMENT Minister John Gormley was challenged last night to guarantee that taxpayers' money won't be wasted defending a court case on the failure to fill a vacancy in the Dail.
But there is growing speculation in political circles that the Government will be forced to announce a date for the three by-elections, rather than run the risk of losing the case.
Given the tight numbers in the Dail, the issue of the by-elections has the potential to prompt a general election as the Government will most likely lose all three votes.
The High Court will hear a judicial review next month into the Government's failure to hold the Donegal South West by-election.
It is estimated that defending the High Court case will cost the taxpayer €100,000 and have knock-on effects for the by-elections in Dublin South and Waterford.
The Government is defending the case, claiming it is up to the Dail to decide when a by-election is held.
The case, being taken by Sinn Fein senator Pearse Doherty, will be heard on October 18.
Fine Gael environment spokesman Phil Hogan said the delay in holding the by-elections is "indefensible" and, as minister in charge of electoral politics, Mr Gormley must guarantee taxpayers' money won't be wasted.
"He should clarify if legal advice from the Attorney General is being used for this naked party political purpose by the Government. If Fianna Fail want to block the filling of the vacancy in the Dail, then taxpayers should not have to pay up to €100,000 in costs in respect of the court case," he said.
Mr Gormley's officials said the minister is not responsible for deciding when a by-election would be held, so he has no role in the court case.
"The decision on the court case would be one which the Government would take. The order [to hold a by-election] is merely signed by the minister once a decision to move a writ is made by the Government," a spokesman said.
But Mr Hogan rejected this claim as he said Mr Gormley is in charge of this area.
Meanwhile, a government spokesman said it is not in a position to give a guarantee on how the Attorney General spends money in defending Government decisions.
"The Government maintains it [the holding of by-elections] is a matter for the legislature and not the courts," he said.
However, the pressure to hold the by-elections will intensify approaching the court case.
Communications Minister Eamon Ryan yesterday repeated the Green Party's preference to hold all three elections on the same day.
Mr Doherty last night claimed the October case would only be avoided if the Government immediately moved the writ for the election and he then withdrew his case.
"They [the Government] are just chancing their arm with this suggestion they will hold one by-election in March. It has already been delayed 15 months and they're now trying to delay it another five months," he said.
Fianna Fail TD Sean Power yesterday called on the Government to announce a date for the by-elections as people should not be denied their democratic right to be represented by TDs.
The Donegal South West seat has been vacant since the election of Fianna Fail's Pat 'The Cope' Gallagher to the European Parliament in June of last year.
There are also vacancies caused by the resignation of Fine Gael's George Lee in Dublin South in February and former Fianna Fail minister Martin Cullen in Waterford in March.
Within political circles, there is speculation the Government will name a date for the by-elections -- probably in spring next year -- to avoid taking the chance of losing the court case.
But the three by-elections could pre-empt the demise of the coalition as the numbers would get far tighter with further spending cutbacks and tax hikes to come.
Fine Gael strategists believe Fianna Fail has no intention of holding the by-elections and will call a general election instead.