Government on hold


Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny has formally taken on the role of Acting Taoiseach until a new government is formed in Dublin or, as appears increasingly likely, a second general election takes place.

Alleged efforts by Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin to be elected Taoiseach ended in humiliation on Thursday when he failed to secure the support of a single TD outside his own party. Kenny fared little better, winning the votes only of his own party and his former coalition colleagues, but still 23 short of the total needed.

Kenny, Martin, Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams and Richard Boyd-Barrett of the Anti-Austerity Alliance/People Before Profit grouping were each nominated by their respective parties.

Despite conducting an aggressive and dirty campaign that was hugely unpopular with voters, Fine Gael remains the largest party at the Leinster House parliament with 50 seats, and they are scrambling to hold onto power.

Fianna Fail aren’t far behind with 44 TDs, more than double the number they had at the outset after quietly making inroads as the government parties and Sinn Fein attacked each other for weeks.

With seven TDs in the new Dail, the decimated Labour team is less than a third the size of Sinn Fein’s and only one bigger than the left-wing group, Anti-Austerity Alliance/People Before Profit.

Since the two conservative parties of southern politics, Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, each failed to secure a majority in their own right, the logical course of action is for the pair of them to combine in a “grand coalition”. However, deep-seated enmities appears too much and both parties may believe they stand to gain in a second election.

The past two weeks have witnessed “an awful lot of shadow boxing and lot of old BS”, according to Independent Roscommon TD Michael Fitzmaurice, as both right-wing parties claimed to be looking to form a government with only the support of independents and others. Apparently resigned to several weeks of political stagnation, the now ‘caretaker’ government ministers are preparing to jet out on their annual St Patrick’s Day junkets.

The new Dail assembled for the first time on Thursday but it resulted in a meaningless ritual, apart from the election of the new Ceann Comhairle, Fine Fail’s Sean O Fearghail.

During almost six hours of exchanges in Leinster House, Kenny said he respected “the verdict of the people” and wanted until at least March 22 to try to form a government.

After the votes, he travelled to Aras an Uachtarain, the official residence of President Michael D Higgins, to officially tender his resignation.

“Let me assure the Irish people that a government remains in place,” he said. “I and my Cabinet colleagues will continue to work hard in the best interests of the country and all the people.”

The other parties were cynical.

“These two parties have the same political outlook, the same policies, and the numbers to govern. These two parties have the votes to elect a Taoiseach tomorrow,” Mr Adams said.

“Those on hospital trolleys and those sleeping in doorways should not be left waiting while Fianna Fail and Fine Gael jockey for position.”

Green party leader Eamon Ryan said the two biggest parties had a “historic opportunity”.

“Do not let the Irish people down,” he said, adding: “I believe it may be time because the numbers just work out that the civil war divide comes to an end.”

But Martin again ruled out any possibility of a “grand coalition” or of supporting a Fine Gael minority government.

“We didn’t get a mandate to go into government with Fine Gael and we certainly didn’t get a mandate to put Fine Gael back into government.”

After talks with Sinn Fein were ruled out, Martin’s claims to be serious about forming a government with independents and the smaller parties have been widely dismissed.

The Fianna Fail leader suggested voters had asked for a “different kind of Dail” and argued that politicians should set aside the next month to deal with Dail reform, saying it was “time to put aside the argument that speed of formation and the size of the majority are what matters in choosing a new Taoiseach and government”.

But Sinn Fein’s Pearse Doherty, Labour’s Brendan Howlin and the Independent Alliance’s Shane Ross all said the electorate was more concerned with health, housing and other issues.

New Ceann Comhairle Sean O Fearghail was embroiled in a sustained row with members of Sinn Fein and Paul Murphy of AAA-PBP as they sought to have a vote on water charges added to the agenda for March 22.

Scrapping the hated water charges is now supported by a clear majority of the TDs in the new Dail.

Mary Lou McDonald said the Ceann Comhairle was attempting to “knock people back on the first day of the 32nd Dail that apparently was so committed to Dail reform.” Mr O Fearghail said her comments were “deeply cynical”.

“From early today it was obvious that on this first day of the 32nd Dail that the government intention was to put off any meaningful debate or scrutiny of the work of government until April 6th,” said Gerry Adams.

“Along with others, we succeeded in bringing the next Dail sitting forward to March 22nd.

“And we proposed that there should be three days of Dail sittings that would include the taking of Parliamentary Questions and Oral Questions.

“However, the government’s clear intention was to hold a Dail meeting for the optics without any meaningful discussion or scrutiny of the work of Ministers or government.

“This evening, Fianna Fail, in the first meaningful vote on the management of Dail business on the first day of the 32nd Dail, voted with the government to block the Sinn Fein proposal.

“It is simply unacceptable that Fianna Fail would vote with of Fine Gael and Labour to block a Sinn Fein motion on scrapping Irish Water and water charges, which that party [Fianna Fail] claimed was a red line issue for it.”

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