The culmination of weeks of outrage over the new Dublin government’s attempts to seize new powers and perks, while stripping benefits from newly unemployed citizens, saw this session of parliament culminate in an angry walk-out by several parties.
In chaotic scenes, government and opposition TDs roared at each other across the outsized auditorium of the Dublin Convention Centre, where Leinster House sittings have been transferred due to social distancing requirements.
The chamber was suspended twice in the bitter row over speaking slots for the debates, as several opposition parties and groupings expressed outrage at legislation that allows the new government to push them down the list of speakers.
People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith said it was like a “dictatorship” of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael as the parties moved to rewrite the speaking order to promote the larger parties. Rise TD Paul Murphy warned “the Government is trying to muzzle the opposition” because of fury over its recent actions.
SOLD A PUP
The controversy followed the eruption of a row over police-state style inspections at airports which have been exposed as unlawful.
At ports and airports, Gardai have been trawling departing air passengers for their personal details and Personal Public Service (PPS) numbers. The details were then handed to Social Welfare inspectors, who used them to justify the termination of emergency Covid-19 unemployment payments and other benefits.
Thousands discovered key supports had been improperly stripped while the government boasted it had “saved” 20 million euro. In an attempt to justify their actions, government officials retrospectively updated the requirements of the new Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP). In a series of on-the-hoof policy changes, Ministers also said they would restore payments, but only for those who travelled to countries where the coronavirus infection rate is lower than in Ireland.
The state’s Free Legal Advice Clinics and Data Protection Commissioner warned that the government’s actions were probably illegal.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald accused the government of “blatant” discrimination. She said workers on the PUP had been refused the right to go on holidays they might have paid for last year but “the billionaire classes, the tax exiles have been accommodated”.
“No penalty for them, not a chance”, she said, pointing out the “utter hypocrisy” of the government, adding: “nobody should be travelling abroad but if they were penalised for doing, so the penalties should be universal”.
SUPER MINISTERS COME UNSTUCK
Meanwhile, three ‘super junior’ ministers at the centre of a controversy over an attempt to quietly issue them with ‘top up’ salary increases of €16,000, in addition to the existing €124,000 salary, were forced to give up the money after a storm of protest late last week.
A government attempt to further win back public support backfired when a declaration that the Cabinet would be taking a 10% ‘pay cut’ turned out to be false -- the net change in ministerial pay meant senior ministers will be costing the taxpayer some €10,000 more per year than the same roles in the former Fine Gael-led minority government.
As he attempted to justify the pay increases, an erratic Taoiseach Micheal Martin chose to go on the offensive, making a bizarre but potentially serious allegation about the funding of a Sinn Féin office in Donegal.
In a tirade about political independence, Martin justified Ireland’s huge salaries for elected representatives by warning about the potential corruption of those who can “bid lower in terms of salaries”.
Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty became enraged when the Taoiseach then insinuated his constituency office was “funded through America”, which would be illegal.
The Taoiseach denied making the allegation, but then repeated it, adding “it has been publicly said that there was American support of Sinn Féin constituency offices in Donegal”.
DRIVEN BY GREED
It was also revealed this week that the former Taoiseach Leo Varadkar intervened to ask if his former deputy leader, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney, could keep his State car and driver service at a cost of €200,000 per year.
The effort to retain Coveney’s car took place away without the knowledge of Justice Minister Helen McEntee or the rest of the Cabinet.
It follows a successful attempt by Varadkar to retain his Aide-De-Camp – his own personal military aide - as well as eight personal advisors.
Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald said the controversy over the efforts to hold onto perks and privileges reflected on the “very disorganised, very chaotic and shambolic” nature of the government.
But it is the Green Party who are continuing to suffer the brunt of the pressure within the three-party coalition. The party appears hopelessly divided after their chief whip voted against a government Bill this week, while one of their Ministers of State abstained.
It was the latest rebuff to party leader Eamon Ryan, who only held off a leadership challenge last week by a tiny margin. After negotiating a Programme for Government opposed by many Greens, it emerged that his first action as a Cabinet Minister was to hire two chiefs of staff and six more special advisers, with salaries of up to €101,000.
The move is said to have led to concern in the Green Party, with some anxiety expressed privately by a number of TDs and members.
Neasa Hourigan has now resigned as the party’s Chief Whip after voting repeatedly against her party on Thursday. She said she objected to legislation to allow banks and vulture fund’ to use hearsay evidence to secure evictions, and supported an amendment to extend the power to ban evictions and rent increases due to the coronavirus.
Ms Hourigan said her vote was “in line with Green Party policy and the legislation in question was not contained within the agreements made in the Programme for Government.”
Joe O’Brien’s decision to abstain on the final vote was seen as the more serious. He is Minister of State for Community Development and Charities and a member of the Government.
The Dublin Fingal TD said the legislation should have been stronger in terms of preventing and reducing homelessness. He was speaking after five people died in Dublin’s homeless services in the space of a week.
“The issue of homelessness is an extremely important one for me, I’ve worked in the area, I’ve been a whistleblower in the area, I have friends who work in the NGOs and I feel we need to do everything we can to tackle it. I’m elected in part to be a legislator,” he said.
Eamon Ryan announced on Friday that the two rebellious TDs have had their speaking rights removed by the party. Speaking at the opening of a new cycle bridge over the Royal Canal in Dublin, he also said he needed some rest.
“I’ll be honest we’re looking forward for two weeks’ holidays. It has been a difficult six months for everyone,” he said.
Speaking at the same event, Fine Gael’s Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe admitted the first few weeks of government “could have gone better”, but was confident about the future of the Coalition. The event ended symbolically when a a member of the media knocked over a tall loudspeaker, narrowly missing Mr Donohoe’s head.