It was announced last week that a vote of no confidence motion in the Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister), Frances Fitzgerald TD, is to be tabled in the Dáil Éireann by Fianna Fáil, the second largest party in the Irish Parliament. Sinn Féin had already said they would table a similar motion earlier on Thursday last week, which was dismissed as a political stunt by the government. However Fianna Fáil’s motion is a much different kettle of fish.
With a minority government, there is now a genuine risk that a no-confidence vote could collapse the Irish government.
This all relates to an ongoing debacle on how the accusations of a Garda (police) officer and whistleblower, Sgt Maurice McCabe, were handled and Fitzgerald’s knowledge of, and role in, a smear campaign against him when she was Justice and Equalities Minister between 2014 and 2017. McCabe initially blew the whistle in 2012 on the Gardaí’s internal handling of an assault allegation and that high-profile people in the Republic had penalty points wiped from their driving licenses. This resulted in a commission – the Charleton Commission – being set up to investigate. The nub of this comes down to an email that was sent to Fitzgerald about a strategy to discredit McCabe from within An Gardaí Síochána (the police) by smearing him – in a plan purportedly known to the Police Commissioner- using an allegation of serious misconduct that had always been denied and had already been rejected by the Director of Public Prosecutions. She says that she doesn’t recall the email and the Minister has no power to act in an independent inquiry in any case.
The affair has been a deep embarrassment for both the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, and the Tánaiste. The Taoiseach has already addressed the Dáil a number of times, more recently expressing his dismay that he has twice inadvertently misled the House due to having incomplete information. The Tánaiste has also addressed the Dáil on this issue.
The Taoiseach has been under increasing pressure to remove Fitzgerald from her post. However, the Government and the parliamentary Fine Gael party have said they have (and indeed have voted for) full confidence in the Tánaiste. The Taoiseach told parliamentary colleagues in the Oireachtas that he does not want a General Election, but that he will not allow Fitzgerald to be “thrown under the bus”
Ireland currently has a minority Government following the 2016 General Election. There is a confidence and supply agreement between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, which they now look set to break. Between them, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin do not have the votes to push through a no-confidence motion, but if the Labour Party joins the vote it may well go through.
Irish commentators are now speculating about a General Election before Christmas. Opinion polls (though the last set seem to date from September) still have Fine Gael out front on 30%, but that may change – many people still blame Fianna Fáil for the austerity measure that followed the 2008 financial crash, though their vote recovered somewhat in 2016 and may grow more in light of recent developments. Fianna Fáil are on around 26% and Sinn Féin are on 18%, with independents on 10% and Labour on 5%.
Micheál Martin, the leader of Fianna Fáil, and the Taoiseach have been have been holed up over the weekend trying to find a solution that would avoid a General Election – but with the deadline for those talk looming, no agreement has been forthcoming. Meanwhile, just to confuse matters, it was suggested in the Irish Times that the President, Michael D Higgins, may have the power to refuse a dissolution of the Dáil under Article 13.2.2 of the Bunreacht na hÉireann and that under Article 28.10, it would fail again to the Dáil to appoint a successor – deemed an unlikely, but not impossible scenario.
If there is an election, it is feasible that Fine Gael could stay the largest party, but there is a significant chance they would not win a majority again. It is uncertain whether in those circumstances Varadkar would be able to remain Taoiseach, and it may take a while for any party to get their house in order to set up a government. The fact Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael managed to put differences – that stem from the Civil War – to one side to go into a confidence and supply arrangement was remarkable enough (which was mostly aimed at shutting out Sinn Féin). After this debacle it is hard to see how a similar agreement could be hammered out.
Which means there’s a good chance there will probably be someone else on the other side of the Brexit negotiations table from Ireland at some point soon.
While Brexiteers may initially think this a boon, the EU will still want a solution to the border. Ireland is relatively unconcerned on this point as it feels it has the backing of the other 26 Member States. And until any government is formed in Ireland, the current government would continue to hold the reins of power as a caretaker on the same mandate – so Varadkar’s current policy on the border would be unlikely to change for the time being.
Similarly, the leader of the Fianna Fáil, Martin, is on the record stating that Brexit makes a hard border “inevitable” and has previously called for Northern Ireland to become a “special economic zone”. So even is Fianna Fáil becomes the largest party and forms a government, the position of the Irish Government on the border is unlikely to change anytime soon.
Conversely, with old animosities between the two largest parties re-emerging, there may suddenly be a new voice in the Irish Government – that of Gerry Adams. While neither Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael could stomach coalition with Sinn Féin last time, they might hold their noses and go into coalition the next time, to keep the other side out. It may be that or no government at all, or indeed yet another election.
With Sinn Féin in government, we could expect a hardening of the Irish position on the border – a much clearer declaration that Northern Ireland must have a special status in the customs union. This would only ossify the DUP’s stance on this idea, with ‘them’uns’ suggesting it from Dublin they will be highly unlikely to acquiesce quietly. It would also spell the end of any hope of getting talks going again in Northern Ireland, as the DUP are unlikely to countenance Sinn Féin in government on both sides of the border.
Whatever the outcome, the outlook for the Irish Government is very unstable. As such, Ireland’s role and status in the Brexit negotiations is hard to predict and adds another headache to the UK Government’s Brexit woes.