Friday 24 May 2019

Micheál, if you really want to 'don the green jersey', then Fianna Fáil will support this Government

Liz O'Donnell

It's time for shouting at the radio again. Surely I am not alone to despair at the carry-on in Leinster House. At a time of unprecedented economic challenge and high risk for our country, caused by the upheaval and uncertainty post-Brexit, our politicians are in scuffles over water charges and a re-run of a private members' bill for legislation that would permit abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.

Now, the latter is a hugely important health issue; a reform which attracts significant support across all parties and none. The reform is widely viewed as a compelling human rights issue for women with crisis pregnancies caused by this tragic medical condition. But it is complicated by the fact that to proceed, it needs the removal of the Eighth Amendment. Without constitutional change, any extension of the law is unconstitutional. All TDs know this.

That is why there is a process in place towards putting the question to the people in referendum during the lifetime of this Government; a process similar to that used before the referendum on marriage equality. The Attorney General has predictably advised that, in the absence of constitutional change, the private members' bill before the house in the name of Independent TD Mick Wallace is unconstitutional.

It is legitimate for the opposition to table bills and motions to stimulate debate on critical issues such as this and keep pressure on Government for reform. Each piece of liberalisation in the abortion law has been hard won and requires passionate advocacy.

What is astonishing, however, is that three Independent ministers, two of whom are in Cabinet, are voting for legislation against the advice of the Taoiseach, the Attorney General and the Chief Medical Officer. They have held firm on this, despite the clear demand of the Taoiseach for adherence to the Article 28 requirement that the Cabinet acts collectively.

The advice of the AG is dismissed with disdain as "merely an opinion". This is unprecedented behaviour for ministers and could lead to legislative chaos. Such defiance by ministers has weakened the authority of the Taoiseach and served to spook the public's confidence in the Government. And there are mutterings of discontent in Fine Gael.

And for all the claim of "conscience", the stand-off is widely perceived as a political stunt by the Independent ministers concerned. The bill is going nowhere; it is not properly drafted; and it will bring no relief to the real lives of the women and men who suffer this distressing predicament. Minister Katherine Zappone, whose credibility on this issue is beyond question, is abiding by the Attorney General's advice.

The polls indicate a shift in party support since the formation of this Government, reflecting perhaps a sobering of sentiment in the face of Brexit-related external threats. Fianna Fáil is up nine points at 33pc, while support for Independents is down by eight points at 22pc.

All the economic indicators point to significant and negative implications for Ireland arising from Brexit. There is nothing more important right now than a stable and united Government. Micheál Martin's exhortation to don the "green jersey "in the aftermath of the Brexit vote might be more than rhetoric. I wonder does the Fianna Fáil leader regret rejecting the offer of a grand coalition after the election.

At the time, the excuse was that they had campaigned to defeat the previous government and therefore had no mandate to share power with Fine Gael.

But the decision of the UK to leave the European Union is a game-changer. It is a national crisis akin to that which propelled Labour into a national government of recovery in 2011. While electorally damaging to Labour, it was a successful and united government that could take tough, pragmatic decisions.

It must be galling for Labour ministers, loyal to a fault to their Cabinet responsibility, in the worst of times, to see Cabinet rules and norms being set aside with impunity this week. But for the rest of us, it is just depressing to observe Government weakness at a critical time. A coherent national plan is needed across Government and agencies to attend to the many fronts in need of protection.

Already, the drop in sterling is hurting our exports and before long will result in bargain-hunting across the Border for shopping to the detriment of trade in southern Border towns. The commercial property landscape in the UK is darkening, with predictions of recession. Ireland is so entwined with our UK neighbours that each post-Brexit threat affects us disproportionately.

The Taoiseach has long experience of navigating stormy economic waters, as he did with considerable success from 2011 to 2016. He has a wealth of expertise at his disposal in the civil and diplomatic service, who are second to none. The miss-step with the DUP on a proposed all-Ireland committee to deal with north-south issues relating to Brexit was uncharacteristic. All our experience is that all-island initiatives are anathema to unionists, particularly without consultation. It was a good idea but was scuppered by careless delivery.

The Taoiseach has the skills to get us through this challenge. But he cannot do it from a position of weakness and with a precarious voting situation on a day-to-day basis. Fine Gael ministers are putting a brave face on the situation, having to win arguments on every point before they win votes and the support of Fianna Fáil in opposition. Constant compromise can be corrosive and dispiriting for ministers, no matter how able they are.

If Micheál Martin is genuine about donning the green jersey, his party should be wholeheartedly supporting the Government and distancing itself from the vexatious and time-wasting antics in the Dáil. People will think more highly of the party if it decouples itself from the spoiling tactics of the far left and Sinn Féin. For example, the two big parties should be agreeing tax policy, such as a lowering of personal taxation as advocated this week by the IDA, in order to improve our competitiveness. That is more important than unseating Joe O'Toole as chair of the Water Commission.

The Independent Alliance has won a pyrrhic victory this week. But people are wising up to the grouping. There ought not to be a second chance and if one arises, Fianna Fáilers should have their jerseys at the ready. Or else be ready to face an election.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss