Wednesday 22 January 2020

Colette Browne: 'If Martin cannot cajole Varadkar into agreeing an election date, he should make an autonomous decision for once'

Micheal Martin. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Micheal Martin. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

Panto season is in full swing in the Dáil as a "oh no you didn't, oh yes you did" spat about the date of an election rages between Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar.

Last week, the Fianna Fáil leader wrote to Mr Varadkar about an issue of great concern. No. It wasn't housing. Or homelessness. The trolley crisis didn't feature either.

What was foremost on Mr Martin's mind was the date of the forthcoming election. Channelling the righteous anger of a bride-to-be enduring an inordinately long engagement, Mr Martin wanted the Taoiseach to finally set a date.

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When Mr Varadkar blithely ignored the letter - with Fine Gael saying the demand was a bit rich considering the Taoiseach asked Mr Martin to name the date two years ago and he refused - an incandescent Mr Martin threw his toys out of the pram.

He told this newspaper there was "no point" in reconvening the Dáil after Christmas if Mr Varadkar would not commit to a date.

This bickering over when to call an election, which started in 2017 and has bubbled up intermittently since then, is even more inexplicable given there is cross-party consensus that an election should happen by May.

If Mr Martin can explain to the rest of us why it makes a blind bit of difference whether the election is in February, March, April or May, it would be greatly appreciated. Because the only people who currently care about this row are politicians who fear canvassing in the depths of winter.

Mr Martin's strop is a textbook example of the narcissism of small differences. Unable to hold the Government to account on an issue that actually matters, the Fianna Fáil leader is engaged in petty politicking about the precise date of a general election.

If politicians are wondering why the public is disengaged with politics, frivolous squabbles like this perhaps provide some clues. Voters, many of whom are experiencing great hardship trying to make ends meet, are baffled by politicians engaging in this asinine sniping when issues that are really important to them are ignored.

Setting an election date would certainly make life easier for political parties, which could better strategise and plan their campaigns, but provides zero benefit for those outside the Leinster House bubble.

Fine Gael is not averse to cynical bluster either. Its members are aghast that Fianna Fáil TDs have admitted to voting on behalf of colleagues who were not in the Dáil chamber when those votes were cast.

The latest deputy to be mired in the controversy is Mayo's Lisa Chambers, with footage emerging this week of Ms Chambers voting for Timmy Dooley on seven separate occasions within one hour.

When the story first broke, Fine Gael TD Noel Rock wrote a haughty letter to the Dáil ethics committee demanding an investigation as the issue was of "significant public importance" and had "the potential to erode the legitimacy of votes cast and indeed erode confidence in our democracy".

We can all agree that the least we should expect of politicians is they manage to sit in their allocated seat and press the correct button from time to time. But if Fine Gael is so concerned with the legitimacy of votes, why is it holding more than 50 Opposition bills hostage by failing to give them a money message?

Scores of private members' bills, some of which would require almost zero expenditure by the State if enacted, are failing to progress though the Houses of the Oireachtas despite passing their first vote in the Dáil, because the Government is serially abusing an arcane procedure.

Only the Government can introduce legislation which involves tax and spending commitments, so all other bills must receive a "money message" from the Government to proceed through the legislative process.

As a minority government, and unable to muster the requisite numbers to defeat Opposition bills it dislikes, it has instead opted not to assign money messages en masse for spurious reasons, meaning bills that have received majority support in the Dáil are going into indefinite cold storage. Two years ago, three Opposition bills had been blocked in this way. Today, that number is approaching 60.

The antics of a few Fianna Fáil TDs, in voting for each other, may have been crass and unprofessional. But, it is the behaviour of the Government and its overt manipulation of legitimate Dáil votes that is truly reprehensible.

The failure to give non-money bills a money message makes a mockery of our parliament and our Constitution, which vests the Oireachtas with "the sole and exclusive power of making laws for the State".

The people elect TDs to represent their interests and legislate on their behalf. The Government is preventing those TDs from carrying out that duty for entirely cynical and selfish reasons.

So Fine Gael TDs can spare us the crocodile tears over the voting habits of a minority of Fianna Fáil TDs. Their party's own record when it comes to respect for Dáil votes is utterly shameful.

Mr Martin may want to collapse the Government because meanie Mr Varadkar won't agree a date for a general election, but he should perhaps show a bit more concern about the contemptuous attitude of the Government to our democratic process.

With the Dáil in stasis and TDs being prevented from doing their most important job, would anyone notice if none of them was to return from their month-long holiday over the festive season?

The confidence-and-supply arrangement, entered into between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, has served its purpose and offered stability throughout the Brexit process. After the UK formally leaves the EU on January 31, there is no rational reason for this Government to continue to limp on.

The current administration has run out of road when it comes to crises in health and housing and has nothing new to offer.

When Opposition TDs amass majority support in the Dáil for an alternate means of addressing these social problems, they are denied the opportunity of progressing them by a Government reduced to ruling by fiat.

A general election campaign would provide an opportunity for political parties to put policies before the people - policies that have some hope of evolving into legislation if the next government achieves a majority or makes a commitment not to abuse the money message procedure in the disgraceful way this administration has.

If Mr Martin cannot cajole Mr Varadkar into agreeing a date for an election, why doesn't he make an autonomous decision for once?

Name the date he will withdraw support from the Government - and precipitate the election himself.

Irish Independent

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