If it wasn’t for the Fine Gael leadership challenge, few would even have paid much notice to today’s motion of confidence in Brian Cowen, which was going to pass in his favour one way or other, and certainly be next week, no one would have remembered anything bar perhaps the odd witty comment. This is why, despite the good story it makes, it’s not actually that much of an issue that Richard Bruton’s challenge to Enda Kenny has this unfortunate element of timing. What matters is that between now and the election, the public is periodically reminded of the findings of the Honohan and the Regling-Watson reports, and why Fianna Fáil has lost the moral authority to be re-elected and claim to be able to manage the economy.
I also don’t really get this obsession with persistent confidence motions, with the withdrawal of pairings, in some vain hope that a random Fianna Fáil backbencher will fail to go through the government lobbies. The government has far lost the effective support of only Joe Behan and Finian McGrath. Even those who have publicly claimed a lack of confidence in Brian Cowen like John McGuinness, and those who have resigned the government whip, like McDaid, Scanlon and Devins, consistently go through the lobbies to back the government. Enda Kenny tried the same stunt after the local and European elections, in an attempt to find faults in government cohesion, which resulted in greater unity and common purpose between the two government parties. If the government really looks like it could fall, if it clearly loses support of enough of those independents, then go ahead and test confidence.
This might also have been what forced Kenny’s hand in asking for Richard Bruton’s resignation. As he explained yesterday, he didn’t feel he could question the confidence in Cowen while he didn’t himself have confidence in the man sitting next to him. Enda Kenny’s decision in this regard made this a plain choice between Fine Gael led by Enda Kenny but without Bruton or those Ivan Yates yesterday on The Frontline described as the best and the brightest on the front bench, and Fine Gael led by Richard Bruton. If that’s the choice, there’s only one option.
While I should have been reading about the power of veto players in the political process for a class tomorrow, I found myself drawn to the vote on the budget in 1981, the last occasion on which a minority government fell because of the votes of independents in the vote on the budget.
As of yesterday, when former Progressive Democrat TD Noel Grealish announced that he was no longer supporting the government, they were officially left with minority support in the Dáil. After the 2007 election, Bertie Ahern was considered quite clever in putting together a level of support that would make it very difficult for the government to fall, being nominated as Taoiseach by a vote of 89 (77 Fianna Fáil, 6 Greens, 2 Progressive Democrats, Beverly Flynn, Jackie Healy-Rae, Michael Lowry and Finian McGrath) to 76 (51 Fine Gael, 20 Labour, 4 Sinn Féin and Tony Gregory).
Now there are just 81 TDs under the government whip, 72 Fianna Fáil, 6 Greens, Mary Harney, Jackie Healy-Rae and Michael Lowry, leaving 82 in the opposition, 52 Fine Gael, 20 Labour, 4 Sinn Féin and 7 Independents. There are a few categories of Independents: Maureen O’Sullivan succeeded to the seat of the deceased Tony Gregory, and like him will oppose the government; Finian McGrath initially supported the government, but withdrew his support after the budget last year; Joe Behan was elected as a member of Fianna Fáil in 2007, but left the party after the education cuts in October 2008; Sligo-North Leitrim TDs Eamon Scanlan and Jimmy Devins resigned the Fianna Fáil whip in August in opposition to cuts at Sligo General Hospital; former Minister Jim McDaid lost the Fianna Fáil whip in November 2008 when he abstained from a vote on the cervical cancer programme, and announced this week that he was no longer supporting the government; and Grealish, as mentioned above, no longer feels bound by the deal made with the Progressive Democrats after the 2007 election as of the formal dissolution of the party last month. Fianna Fáil are also down one seat since Pat The Cope Gallagher vacated his seat when elected as an MEP in June. See Elections Ireland for the succession of diminishing support for the government in the Dáil.
Back in 1981, after the election on 11 June, a minority Fine Gael-Labour government was elected. They had 65 and 15 seats respectively, and the support of Jim Kemmy, a former Labour member who had left to form the Democratic Socialist party in 1972. Garret FitzGerald was opposed in the nomination for Taoiseach only by the 78 Fianna Fáil members, with Niall Blaney (Independent Fianna Fáil), Noël Browne (Socialist Labour), Seán Dublin Bay Rockall Loftus (Independent) and Joe Sherlock (Sinn Féin The Workers’ Party) abstaining (two H-Block prisoners, Kieran Doherty and Paddy Agnew were also elected).
This was always going to be a difficult government to maintain, and when it came to the vote on the John Bruton’s budget in January 1982, with controversial measures like a tax on children’s shoes, it received the support of the 80 government TDs, as well as Noël Browne. Voting against were 77 from Fianna Fáil, Charlie McCreevy (who had lost the FF whip after calling a vote of confidence in Charles Haughey’s leadership), Joe Sherlock, Jim Kemmy and Seán Dublin Bay Rockall Loftus, a total of 82. Garret FitzGerald declared immediately after the vote that he would seek a dissolution, and on 18 February, the country went to the polls, with a short-lived minority Fianna Fáil government to follow.
How likely are we to see such as an occurrence on Wednesday? Though it is a possibility, I would be surprised if it did not pass. It will nevertheless be interesting to see which of these independents will vote against it or abstain. I expect it to be supported by the 81 government TDs, as well as Devins and Scanlon. Having supported previous government budgetary measures, they will probably maintain that it is on matters of health policy alone that they disagree with the government. This will give them their 83.
There are 79 who can be counted on to vote against: the 76 opposition party TDs, as well as Behan, O’Sullivan and McGrath. So it’s a question then of whether Jim McDaid and Noel Grealish will vote in favour, against, or abstain. My guess is that they’ll abstain. In that way, they would send a clear signal to the government that they don’t want to be cut off entirely, but that their support will have to be won.