The Dáil rose for summer recess on Thursday 14 July, ending a Dáil term in which the rising cost of living quickly replaced the Covid pandemic as the crisis at hand for Government, and will certainly be firmly atop the Government’s agenda when the Dáil returns on Wednesday 14 September and define policy matters for the Autumn/Winter term.
The final week of sittings was not without its drama, however: the Government faced a vote of no confidence on Tuesday last week, tabled by Sinn Féin after the Government lost its majority the week prior, with the resignation of the party whip by Fine Gael’s Joe McHugh, reducing its numbers to 79 out of 160 seats. While Government was confident in winning the vote, assured by the support of select Independent TDs and even Government party TDs that had lost or resigned the whip in recent months (such as McHugh), it secured a comfortable win of 85 votes to 66. Tánaiste and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar said that the vote allowed the Government to demonstrate that it does have a clear working majority and that it “can and will last full term” and that there was “no prospect of a Sinn Féin-led government this year, next year or the year after, and maybe not even the year after that.”
What the polls say
However, while Government leaders were perhaps conveying a façade of confidence last week as they entered the summer recess, there is certainly concern – particularly among backbench party members – as to the continued rise of Sinn Féin in the polls, which shows no signs of abating in the near future. The Irish Times/Ipsos poll published the day after last week’s confidence vote shows the main Opposition Party up three points since April to 36% – a record high in this particular poll, and mirrored across separate polls over the last year. Sinn Féin continue to widen their lead on the Government parties, who by contrast have struggled to make any gains in the last year: the same Irish Times/Ipsos poll puts Taoiseach Micheál Martin’s party, Fianna Fáil at 20%, down three points since April and Fine Gael at 18%, a four point drop over the same period and the lowest for Tánaiste Leo Varadkar’s party since 1994. The Green Party remain unchanged at 3%.
The Coalition’s cohesion will certainly continue to be tested as we fast approach the halfway point of the Government’s lifespan in December, and the historic first that will see the Taoiseach’s office rotate from Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin to Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar. A reshuffling of some Cabinet briefs can certainly be expected at this time too, meaning that some Ministers have just four months left in their Departments to make their mark. There is lot of speculation as to which Department Micheál Martin will want to take up come December but many feel it is unlikely to be a straight swap into Enterprise. Taking Foreign Affairs could line him up nicely for a future position as Commissioner, while Finance would put him in the most powerful portfolio and allow him to make life difficult for some of his own restless backbenchers.
Growing backbench unrest
Already, backbench unrest has grown more vocal in recent months and McHugh’s resignation of the party whip is the fifth TD the Government parties have lost since the coalition was formed in June 2020. Most acute is the disquiet among the Fianna Fáil backbench, with several TDs voicing their concerns over the past year as to their party’s performance in Government and distinguishing the party’s identity from Fine Gael, in particular; such disquiet will only grow louder as Fine Gael assumes the Taoiseach’s office again come December and already some Fianna Fáil TDs have called for Micheál Martin to outline his plans to step down as Party leader once he vacates the office. As of now, Martin has stated his intention to lead Fianna Fáil into the next General Election.
Climate and Environmental Policies
Loudest among the backbench critics – in both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – are rural constituency TDs, once voter strongholds of both Parties but who are now witnessing for the first time Sinn Féin capturing the voter share here – and among farming communities in particular – as well as the growing poll popularity of Independent TDs (up five points to 20% in the Irish Times/Ipsos poll). At the source of such tensions lies the climate action policies committed to in the Programme for Government, which have met staunch resistance from rural TDs who claim such measures run counter to their constituents’ interests and put a disproportionate level of burden on the agricultural sector. Such tensions came to a head in recent months between Minister for the Environment and Green Party Leader, Eamon Ryan, and backbench TDs around measures to curtail the sale of turf. While compromise was reached on this occasion, negotiations between Ryan’s Department and the Fianna Fáil Minister for Agriculture, Charlie McConalogue around emissions targets for the agricultural sector remain ongoing, and are expected to conclude in the coming weeks; any compromise will be seen by either party as a betrayal of party principles, and will no doubt strain the Coalition’s loyalties further.
For Sinn Féin, their poll trajectory will likely continue as we enter the new Dáil term, and as the winter months put further strain on households dealing with the cost of living. The party has in recent months repeatedly called for Government intervention in the form of an ‘Emergency Budget’ to deliver immediate financial relief for households, appealing beyond the party’s core voter base and exploiting the expectation that Government – a precedent set from two years of pandemic management – can intervene to address any and all crises overnight; we can expect Sinn Féin to further leverage this to their political advantage in the coming months.
The test for Government in this sense, will be delivering on such expectations in Budget 2023, now to be unveiled two weeks earlier on Tuesday September 27th. Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe has indicated a core budgetary package of €6.7 billion – a significant sum in a post-Covid Budget and €1.7 billion higher than had been forecast, and which the Minister has hinted could be revised higher come Budget Day pending the path of inflation in the coming months. As expected, Donohoe has already sounded caution on public expectations in Budget 2023, warning that Government cannot absorb all price shocks from the cost of living crisis and that a range of measures have already been introduced this year at a substantial cost to the public purse, such as the €200 energy credit, VAT cut on gas and electricity and an excise reduction on motor fuels. However, as the economy continues to rebound strongly post-Covid, with tax revenues in particular reaching pre-pandemic record highs, this will be a fine line for Government to walk come September; we can expect in the coming weeks Government backbenchers to be among the most vocal in calling for far-reaching measures to put money back in their constituents’ pockets.
While Government has fared well in the face of uncertainty over the previous two years, the coming months look increasingly unsettled for the Coalition partners as they enter what is arguably new political territory as we approach the half-way point of the Government’s lifespan. While entering the summer recess from what can be perceived as a relative position of strength, we can be assured that all three Government parties will face threats both internal and external in the coming months.