Europe continues to give Irish taoiseach domestic headaches, writes PJ Cunningham
Just when Irish people had begun to think that Brexit was now just between the UK and Europe, it has come back to haunt Ireland’s politics.
It has given Taoiseach Leo Varadkar a major headache as he faces as many as four by-elections to fill the Dáil seats vacated by TDs who have been elected MEPs.
Fine Gael’s Frances Fitzgerald, Independents 4 change Claire Daly, in Dublin, and Mick Wallace in Wexford, and Fianna Fail’s Cork TD Billy Kelleher are all headed for Brussels and Strasbourg.
Normally one such by-election can be bad news for a government party but four defeats in the five being held could seriously undermine Fine Gael standing as a minority government.
That would be the cue for the party that keeps them in power – Fianna Fáil - to finally pull the plug on this administration.
These days Mr Varadkar insists that his post-election comments last month – that a General Election may have to be called in the autumn – were misinterpreted.
The change of political leadership in the Conservative Party and 10 Downing Street and the increased threat by the Tories to leave the EU by 31 October with no deal have once again moved the goalposts in Irish politics.
There is a consensus in Leinster House that, come Halloween, it would be better for Ireland to have a government in place and totally focused on what is happening about Brexit than to be in the midst of a general election with a caretaker government and all politicians out canvassing.
It is certain that the Taoiseach will not seek the dissolution of the Dáil over the summer months.
While he would prefer to avoid having to contest the by-elections he may have to just suck it up, so to speak, with the risk that big losses would lead to calls for a general election.
But it might also suit Fianna Fáil for Brexit to wait and see Brexit sorted out meaning they could opt to stick with the status quo of their ‘Confidence and Supply Agreement’ which has kept Fine Gael in power for three years.
By-elections are nearly always bad news for sitting governments – only twice since the early 1980s has this not been so.
What is forcing Mr Varadkar’s hand in this issue is Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty’s High Court success nine years ago.
That ruling legally obliges a government to hold a by-election six months from when a seat in the Dáil is vacated through death, resignation or for other reasons.
The European Parliament reconvenes with newly elected members on 2 July, giving a six-month window to 2 January.
Obviously, December is out because of Christmas, leaving the Taoiseach to either got for a four-in-one punt in November, keep his fingers crossed, and hope to poll well.
However should the outcome be four losses, it would hasten an early general election in 2020 with Fine Gael very much on the back foot.
Ordinarily, he would plump for a November general election but Brexit hangs over his head like the Sword of Damocles.
He would find it hard to ride two horses – Brexit negotiations and a general election – without falling off both.
There is also the added complication of getting his government’s next budget passed – especially as Fianna Fáil says the Irish government’s financial forecasts are simply not credible.
The two parties are, in principle, committed to a fourth budget FF’s Finance Spokesman Michael McGrath says negotiations will be extremely difficult given the hole in public finances highlighted by the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council last week.
Mr McGrath said he was unhappy that Fine Gael had not stuck to earlier spending agreements preferring a ‘make it up as they go along’ approach in some departments.
Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe conceded he was aware of criticism of Ireland’s over-reliance on corporation tax and said that these huge revenues are being used to reduce public debt.
This was only possible, said Mr Donohoe, because Ireland has a budget surplus for the first time since the collapse of the Celtic Tiger era.
He said that crash was FF’s fault but said he acknowledged the caveats they attached to their support for the budget.
He hoped, in turn, this would lead to fewer FF spending demands.
Current European Commission advice is that any tax ‘windfalls’ should be set against Ireland’s general debt ratio.