Irish backstop –
The frailty of this Fine Gael-led Government has been emphasised by defeat in last week’s four by-elections; by Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy’s near-death experience in a Dáil vote of no confidence over inadequate housing and by Dara Murphy’s behaviour concerning Dáil allowances over the last two years. It is a lame duck administration, lacking the power to legislate on contentious issues, while relying on a confidence-and-supply arrangement with Fianna Fáil for survival.
The sooner a general election takes place, the better. Before that happens, however, some basic housekeeping is required. The outcome of next week’s British general election will dictate the nature of the UK’s departure from the EU and will have significant implications for Ireland, North and South.
While Boris Johnson and the Conservatives are on track to gain a comfortable majority, their lead remains under threat. If he wins, Johnson will take Britain out of the EU by January 31st – on terms already agreed – and Irish prevarication over holding a general election will lack any justification.
Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin have contended in the past, with strong public support, that calling an election while the threat of a hard Brexit remained would be foolish, limiting the scope for an effective government response. Another consideration was that neither party might be able to form a coalition government, raising the unwelcome prospect of a second confidence-and-supply arrangement and months of negotiations. The party leaders talked vaguely of an April/May election.
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Sinn Féin will not wish to wait that long. Having won a byelection in Dublin, after poor showings in local and presidential elections, the party hopes to make gains in Northern Ireland. Mary Lou McDonald wants to revive the Assembly there before Christmas. If that comes to pass, Sinn Féin may try to build on the momentum and seek to bring down the Government. A Dáil motion of no confidence in Minister for Health Simon Harris, because of hospital trolley numbers, would probably do it.
Opposition parties have identified housing and health as the issues on which the general election will be fought. It may not be as simple as that, if Fine Gael succeeds in changing the narrative. The economy is doing well, according to recent reports. Unemployment fell below 5 per cent.
An average 4 per cent increase in hourly wages took place during the year, with the biggest rises going to the lower paid. Rents rose but property prices have begun to fall. And consumer spending is at a healthy level. There is, however, no escaping the reality that this minority Government has run out of steam. So has the electorate, going by falling levels of voter participation.
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