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Sunday 25 March 2018

O'Dea call to Cowen: face up to by-elections

Greens' tweeting politics insults the public's intelligence, says ex-minister


POLL-TOPPING TD Willie O'Dea, who was forced to resign as the defence minister just nine months ago, last night called on Brian Cowen to immediately issue writs for three by-elections to the Dail. Such a move could precipitate the fall of the Government.

Mr O'Dea told the Sunday Independent it "should be possible" to "move ahead now" with the by-elections, adding that "sufficient time has elapsed" since the seats became vacant.

The former defence minister has also launched an unprecedented attack on Fianna Fail's coalition partners, the Greens. He accusing them of having a "corrosive" effect on Government by "tweeting" apparently sanctioned statements that run contrary to agreed cabinet positions.

Mr O'Dea said: "It is the worst form of gesture politics that insults and belittles both the commitment of their government colleagues and the intelligence of the public."

Green senator Dan Boyle, whose use of the social networking site Twitter led to Mr O'Dea's resignation in February, yesterday 'tweeted': "Not surprised by former minister O'Dea. Still not expecting a Christmas card from him."


However, it is expected that Mr O'Dea's dramatic intervention, just three weeks before the Oireachtas returns, will be seized upon by Fine Gael and Labour, adding to an unstoppable momentum towards a general election.

Both Fianna Fail and the Greens were last night bracing themselves for what both expect to be huge pressure from the opposition when the Dail resumes, to such an extent that the holding of the by-elections, sooner rather than later, might become inevitable.

Meanwhile, in another crucial development, it has also emerged that Fine Gael is in secret negotiations with independent TD Michael Lowry to orchestrate a timely withdrawal of his support from the Government.

Mr Lowry, a former Fine Gael minister, is understood to have told sources close to that party's leadership that he will move to abandon the Government immediately after the by-elections are called.

Sources close to Enda Kenny believe that two other independent TDs, who also support the Fianna Fail-Green Coalition, would follow Mr Lowry's in an attempt to distance themselves from an unpopular Government.

In the event that Noel Grealish and Jackie Healy-Rae also withdraw their support, the Government would be dependent on the vote of the Ceann Comhairle to function -- a position that is widely believed to be unsustainable.

Mr O'Dea, who announced on The Late Late Show on Friday that he intends to contest the General Election, last night told this newspaper that in order for the Government to deal with critical "economic and budgetary matters", it might not be possible to hold the three by-elections until early next year.

But last night, a Labour Party source said: "If Willie O'Dea says the by-elections must be held, then the genie is out of the bottle and there is no putting it back in until after the Budget."

The Labour leadership and a majority in Fine Gael are known to prefer that the Government be required to introduced a Budget in December -- cuts and taxes in the order of €3bn have been signalled -- after which a sustained attempt will be made to collapse the Coalition.

However, Mr Kenny is said to be anxious that the by-elections be held before the Budget and the Government immediately brought down -- before his opponents within Fine Gael have sufficient time to regroup and mobilise another attempt to remove him as party leader.

A Fine Gael source close to Mr Kenny said yesterday: "We are working to a general election in October." Should an election be held before the Budget, Mr Kenny is favourite to emerge as Taoiseach.

Even if the Government can withstand the pressure that will inevitably follow Mr O'Dea's intervention, it must then defend a case in the High Court next month, brought by Sinn Fein, which seeks to force it to issue a writ to hold the by-election in Donegal South West.

Were Sinn Fein to be successful in the High Court, there would be unbearable pressure to hold the two other by-elections -- in Waterford and Dublin South -- at the same time.

However, some observers are speculating that Mr O'Dea's preference for the by-elections to be held in the new year, after the Budget, may be designed to buy the Government time in advance of the Sinn Fein legal action.

One senior Fianna Fail source said last night: "The informed talk in Government is that all three by-elections will be held on the one day in March."

Meanwhile, other Fianna Fail sources remain "quietly confident" that the party could win in Donegal South West, in what would be the first by-election win for a Government party since 1982. If Fianna Fail pulled off a surprise win, it would shore up the Government in the short term.

Sources across each of the parties, however, say the "working assumption" is that Fianna Fail will lose all three by-elections.

In a column in the Sunday Independent today, Mr O'Dea said: "I genuinely don't bear any personal grudge regarding what happened to me last February. I do, however, have real concerns about the need of some in the Greens to have it both ways.

"Collective responsibility is rendered meaningless when Green parliamentarians can appear to be making sanctioned statements of Green Party policy that run contrary to the position agreed at the cabinet table by their government colleagues.

"It is the worst form of gesture politics that insults and belittles both the commitment of their government colleagues and the intelligence of the entire public."

He also writes: "Now is not the time for politics as usual, -- every government statement or ministerial utterance has to be contradicted or denounced for the sake of it, either by the opposition spin-mill or by Green tweeting."

As matters stand, the Government has an 84-78 majority in the Dail, comprising Fianna Fail (74), including whipless deputies Eamon Scanlon, Jimmy Devins, Jim McDaid and Mattie McGrath; Greens (six); former PD leader Mary Harney and three independents, Mr Lowry, Mr Grealish and Mr Healy-Rae.

The opposition comprises Fine Gael (51), Labour (20), Sinn Fein (four), and three independents, who regularly oppose the Government -- Finian McGrath, Joe Behan and Maureen O'Sullivan.

Should the Government lose the three by-elections, its majority would be narrowed to 84-81. If the three independents who prop up the Government withdrew their support, the Coalition would be dependent on the vote of the Ceann Comhairle.

Sunday Independent

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