Irish political update: What an end to an unstable start

by Aideen Ginnell, Ireland Director

After a mammoth session last night in the Convention Centre, the Dáil has now gone into recess for six weeks. True to the style of Irish  politics recently, the last session was certainly eventful and full of embarrassing moments for the government. 

With Points of Order being used last night as time to debate the government’s changes on speaking rights for backbench TDs, the new Leas-Cheann Comhairle Catherine Connolly TD found it extremely hard to keep order. The night included a forced recess, a walk-out and the Tánaiste making a very unusual speech about the left bullying the right larger government parties. 

In our last political round-up until September, we look at the various u-turns performed by the new government, the factions emerging in the Green Party and what it might mean for crucial votes, the potential data protection breach and what to look forward to in September. 

U-turns – the trademark of this new government 

The government has made a series of u-turns on policy decisions over the past week giving rise to criticism from within the parliamentary parties of each of the coalition partners.  The Irish Examiner reported on the issue headlining it ‘another day, another u-turn.’ 

In summary: 

  • On Monday, the government u-turned and announced it was taking a 10% cut in pay, only for it to emerge that this still left them better off than their equivalents in the last Dáil.   
  • On Tuesday, after a week of controversy, the three ‘super junior’ ministers announced they were giving back the top-up allowance that was legislated for only days before and instead splitting the existing allowance three ways. 
  • Then on Wednesday,  Minister Heather Humphreys became the latest u-turn advocate when she had to backtrack on her position, and that of Leo Varadkar, on people having their PUP allowance stopped if they travelled abroad for a holiday. This debate also sparked a fresh controversy over the provision of the information from the airports to revenue and if it is acquired legally. 

This government has handed a very nice start to Sinn Féin as lead opposition. They have only had to turn up over the last few weeks to score goals. While Sinn Féin and the Social Democrats did place a motion down to ask the Dáil to sit next week to discuss the potential data protection mishandling, the government managed to escape that pitfall with a timely recess. Instead the House debated speaking rights for hours last night and by the time it came to take the motion, even the most fervent opposition wanted a break from the Chamber and appeared to have little desire to return next week. 

And the Green Whip was first to break free 

Yesterday afternoon, Green Party TD Neasa Hourigan voted against the government five times during the Residential Tenancies and Valuation Bill 2020. Immediately afterwards she resigned as Green Party Whip but issued a statement that she would like to remain in the parliamentary party. Meanwhile Green Party Minister of State Joe O’Brien also abstained from the final vote on the government Bill.  

Both TDs have been sanctioned by the party and have had their speaking rights withdrawn for two-months to begin immediately. With a Dail in recess, this is an extremely light penalty that will only see them lose privileges for two-weeks in September. 

While both politicians are admirable in their stances, some might argue that they are confused about what being in government means. Their statements which were released yesterday evening are sure to sour many other government TDs who have had to row behind the majority to allow governance. For example, Hourigan said her vote was in line with Green Party policy and that the legislation, which was proposed, does not offer enough protection for renters, and was not agreed within the Programme for Government. In O’Brien’s statement, he said the issue of homelessness is an extremely important one for him and that he was not convinced this legislation was the best that they could do.  

Regardless of views on the matter, it is a bad sign when the Party’s Whip and a Minister go against the government’s crucial legislation this early on. An observer might question if the Green Party will be able to get its members in line for the Budget and the National Economic Recovery plan which are going to have to apply cuts and hikes. 

With a party with fractions of more socialist politics emerging under its umbrella, Eamon Ryan must do all he can now to stabilise his TDs ahead of the new term in September. 

Is the government breaching data protection laws? 

So, the government escaped by the skin of its teeth yesterday from having to answer further questions on the PUP controversy and on whether a. the rule about not being able to travel is legally sound and b. if information was being obtained unlawfully. 

To give context to the situation, the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) is the €350 a week enhanced social welfare benefit for anyone who lost their job due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The scheme has been extended until April. The controversy began when the Sunday Business Post reported that some 104 people have had their PUP cut off because they were found to be boarding a flight abroad. 

Historically you could travel abroad while in receipt of Jobseeker’s for a two-week holiday, however it has emerged that the law was changed a couple of weeks ago by the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection to state that the PUP would not be paid to people who are leaving the country to go on holidays abroad.  

The Tánaiste added fuel to the fire on RTÉ’s The Week in Politics when he said the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection gets information from the airports on who is travelling and that is how they suspended payments. The Dublin Airport Authority issued a statement the next day saying it does not pass on personal information to any third-party. Questions have been raised all week about the lawfulness of the restriction and on how the data collection process with civil liberties activists and lawyers asking questions about whether the statutory instrument introduced by the Minister might be on legally questionable ground. 

This is likely to play out in the media over the coming weeks, but for now, the government has escaped the scrutiny of the Oireachtas. 

Looking forward 

In September, the government will begin its preparation for Budget 2021 and industry and community groups will intensify their lobby for various measures. We will also start to hear whisperings about the National Economic Recovery Plan and Brexit Omnibus Legislation (part 2). That is before we consider the work promised on insurance reform in October, on housing development and on health reform. Not to mention the implementation of climate reduction measures across the board to ensure we are in a good position by January to achieve the 7% reduction. 

Undoubtedly, this new government needs a breather to take stock of its challenges, cement its own support and most of all agree on a messaging approach. So many of the blunders were caused by mixed messages and communications that were not thought true. It can be argued that a three party coalition that includes parties that are historically vehemently opposed to each other, will take time to find a balance.  Let us hope that balance is found during the recess as the last political term in 2020 looks set to be an incredibly busy one which will require unity. 

Aideen Ginnell

Ireland Director