Former education minister Joe McHugh tells Independent.ie he decided to vote against mica redress scheme with “a clear head” and “a heavy heart”
THE Government is set to lose its majority in the Dáil this evening, Independent.ie can reveal.
Former Fine Gael minister Joe McHugh has voted against his coalition colleagues and will resign the Fine Gael party whip tonight.
The Donegal TD does not support legislation that was pushed through the Dáil this evening aimed at compensating homeowners whose properties have been impacted by the mica scandal.
“I am making this decision with a clear head,” he said, adding that he “couldn’t in good conscience” vote for the bill.
The Defective Concrete Blocks Grant Scheme is being debated in the Dáil tonight – but campaigners say it does not offer the 100pc redress which they have been seeking.
They also say the two-hour time slot for the debate was not enough.
While praising the work Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien has done on coming up with a compensation package, Mr McHugh said the lack of time allowed for considering changes to the scheme was a major factor in his decision.
Speaking to Independent.ie, he said: “They are not giving it the adequate time to think through where it could be improved or made better. I know there will never be a perfect mica scheme but this is a massive piece of legislation and it’s just not being given enough time.”
Parts of Mr McHugh’s constituency have been blighted by the presence of mica in concrete blocks used in the construction of homes. Many families have seen walls in their properties literally crumble as a result.
Politicians in the region have come under sustained pressure from campaigners to demand changes to the government scheme which will cost €2.7bn.
They have proposed around 80 amendments to the bill. Among the changes Mr McHugh wants is a recognition that some homeowners might want to downsize during the rebuilding phase.
He added that proposed scheme will still leave some people needing to come up with tens of thousands of euro for rebuild projects but banks won’t deal with them.
"The ultimate arbitrators of this scheme has to be the people who have to live with this nightmare,” he said.
In May Mr McHugh indicated that he plans to retire from politics at the next election. Speaking at the time, he said he would remain committed to achieving mica redress during his time left in the Dáil.
His decision to now vote against the Government is a major setback for the Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Green coalition which had a majority of just one.
Two months ago the Green Party removed the party whip and suspended Patrick Costello and Neasa Hourigan from the parliamentary party for six months when they broke ranks on a vote over the National Maternity Hospital project.
Asked whether he accepted he will face a similar punishment, Mr McMugh, a former government chief whip, said he knows the consequences of his decision. He plans to resign the party whip tonight.
This means the Government benches will be reduced to just 79 out of 159 TDs, excluding the Ceann Comhairle. In theory the Opposition will be made up of 80 TDs, leaving the Government in a very precarious position as Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe prepares for a budget on September 27.
Mr McHugh said he hasn’t yet thought about whether he will support the Government from the opposition benches but noted that he was making today’s decision with a heavy heart.
A number of Independent TDs vote with the Government on a case by case basis and could now make demands for support ahead of the Budget.
The mica legislation was pushed through the Dáil on Wednesday evening despite the loss of Mr McHugh, with Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien promising to address any anomalies and further needs later.
But Sinn Féin finance spokesman Pearse Doherty, who is from Donegal, told him the framework of his draft law was as defective as the blocks and aggregate used in thousands of homes around the country.
An effort to include restitution of foundations in the Bill was defeated when the minister refused to accept the amendment, arising out of concern that a weakening substance known as pyritite is present and inherently makes structures unsafe – even if rebuilt.
But Mr O’Brien pledged that if an independent scientific assessment found pyritite present in foundations and infill, then this would be included in the scheme. The Government needed to get on with its effort, and the review was taking place in parallel, he said.
There were also calls for the State to allow homeowners to downsize after their experience. Michael McNamara, a Clare Independent, asked the minister to explain how the State would save money by preventing a house being built at a lesser size than the previous one. “The only difference it makes is how much the unfortunate homeowner is going to have to augment the build cost by.”
Richard O’Donoghue of Limerick said houses built in the 1980s and 90s had particular foundations because the roof was of lighter timber at the time. Today there were heavier timbers with a heavier roof structure, going onto potentially the same foundations designed many years ago “to take a lighter house”. He warned: “Today you cannot build that light house, because the regulations have changed.”
But the Housing Minister said that specialists would look at the foundations of homes. “That work is, is underway by the NSA to test scientifically, should there be an issue with the foundations,” he said.
“Should it occur that there was an issue with this material (in the foundations), we would include that in the scale. But we need to base decisions like this on scientific evidence.
“We should test this material scientifically to find out if the issue is prevalent, how prevalent it is, and does it affect the foundations. And I've said clearly that if it is the case, then we will include foundations in the scheme.”
He added: “I think to try to put in legislation now something that is not based on scientific facts, that we don't know yet, would actually do a disservice to the scheme itself.”
The Government needed certainty, and if it was the case that pyritite was rampant in foundations and infill, then that part of a building’s baseline construction would be included, he said. “We'll amend the scheme to do that.”
Meanwhile, mica campaigners were ordered to leave the Dáil visitors' gallery after loudly banging on the windows and heckling government ministers and TDs as the Mica bill passed on Wednesday night.
Amid cries of "shame" and banging on the windows, Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghail asked the ushers to clear the gallery as the final vote on the bill was called.
As the campaigners left one was heard to shout, in apparent reference to Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue: “You’re finished Charlie.”
Mr McHugh voted against the Government six times in total, including twice on roll call votes requested by Sinn Féin.
He confirmed that he had resigned the party whip, leaving the Government without a majority in the Dáil.
Ultimately the bill passed by 74 votes to 69.
Earlier, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar told the Fine Gael parliamentary party that it was very regrettable for the Government to not have Mr McHugh’s vote on the mica bill but that he believed he will continue to support the Government on other matters and that the Coalition will continue to have a working majority in the Dáil.