Wednesday 17 January 2018

Government defeat is latest episode in game of thrones

ANYONE unsure of just how precarious a position Enda Kenny's partnership government is in need only look at the embarrassing defeat it suffered in last week's vote on increasing protection for workers.

In a surprise defeat, the government lost the vote on a counter motion it had moved in an attempt to block a Labour party motion on improving workers rights, increasing the minimum wage and bringing in a living wage of €11.50 an hour for public sector workers.

The Fine Gael counter motion - which pledged to respond to the recommendations of the Low Pay Commission - was roundly defeated with the government losing the vote by a considerable margin of 20 votes.

While the news of a government party losing a vote may not seem earth shattering, it is highly unusual and a clear sign of just how unsteady the current arrangement is.

To put last week's vote into context, the last time a government lost such a vote was in 1989 when Charlie Haughey's Fianna Fáil minority government - supported by Alan Duke's Fine Gael - suffered an embarrassing defeat on a motion calling for extra funding for haemophiliacs who contracted AIDS from contaminated blood products.

Coincidentally, the 1989 AIDS funding motion was moved by the new Labour leader Brendan Howlin, who has now had a key role in defeating two governments in Dáil votes.

That defeat was used as an excuse by Haughey - whom opinion polls had convinced that a majority FF government was possible - to trigger the 1989 General Election. It proved to be a disastrous miscalculation with Fianna Fáil losing four seats and - after protracted negotiations like those we witnessed earlier this year - the party found itself in coalition with the PDs.

Last week's defeat highlights just how vulnerable the government will be when it attempts to pass any controversial legislation. Significantly, it was the first demonstration that Fianna Fáil will not abstain on all votes and make life easier for the government

Fianna Fáil's deal with Fine Gael saw the main opposition party agree to a support the minority government in what is known as 'supply and confidence' arrangement, whereby Fianna Fáil agreed to facilitate Fine Gael budgets and vote against or abstain in any motions of no confidence advanced against the government.

This agreement is entirely contingent on Fine Gael meeting policy promises it made to Fianna Fáil during their negotiations.

Votes like the one last week on workers' rights - which don't force the collapse of a government if lost - don't form part of the Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil deal.

However, Enda Kenny will likely have expected a little more support from what are in reality his coalition partners in all but name. Particularly given his decision to allow Micheál Martin personally select three of the 11 'Taoiseach's nominees' for the Seanad.

While the workers rights motion vote was a victory for the Labour Party, the real winner in this game of thrones is Micheál Martin. One would imagine Martin was keen to send a clear signal to Enda Kenny before the summer recess and ahead of budget negotiations in the coming months.

Quite what the rest of the political year holds in store remains a mystery. However, one thing is certain - this autumn's Dáil term is going to be one of the most interesting since the 1980's.

The government had better enjoy its vacation.

Wexford People

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