29 June 2006 Edition

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Coalition disarray highlights sham democracy

BY ROBBIE SMYTH

The distance between 26-County voters and the exercise of power in the state has never been greater. A perfect example in the past week was the sight of rows within the parliamentary parties of both the Progressive Democrats and Fianna Fáil.

The spats also underlined how supposed law makers in the state, are powerless in day-to-day government decision making. Power rests not with the 80-plus TDs but with just two people - Mary Harney and Bertie Ahern, both of whom have in the last week seen off challenges to their authority.

PD leader and Tánaiste Mary Harney was drawn into a hugely damaging squabble amid claims by supporters of Justice Minister Michael McDowell that she had promised to step down before the next election. Harney has been PD leader since 1993. Possible dates included the 20th anniversary of the party's foundation last November, before last April's party conference and Harney's 25th anniversary as a TD on 11 June.

The passing of all these suitable dates without a Harney abdication is what prompted the McDowell spat, with claims that the two had a "dysfunctional relationship" and that Harney was planning to sack McDowell from cabinet. In turn it was alleged that McDowell threatened not to run in the next election if Harney didn't stand down.

McDowell's return to the PDs in 2002 came after a specially made position as PD party president was created for him. What it will take to keep McDowell in the PDs now is unclear even though he has denied the rift and claimed that "there are no differences between us".

Throughout the dispute, which filled media reports, there was little if no reference to the actual PD membership electing a new leader as against McDowell's desire to appoint himself to the post.

Fianna Fáil's mid-week wobble was a mini-internal revolt as backbench TDs threatened to form a new committee aimed at making the cabinet aware of their concerns.

By Tuesday night Ahern had re-asserted control, as the parliamentary party agreed not to support the new backbencher-controlled policy committee. TDs and Senators attended meeting a meeting in the party's Leinster House rooms where Ahern told the meeting that he would have preferred if the TDs had approached him directly about the establishment of the committee before 16 TDs signed a letter. His remarks contradicted comments he made last Friday when he claimed he had been told about the plans. The Taoiseach was well-prepared and quickly proposed to create new groups to examine policy proposals.

The four new committees may change in time into one grouping, but the party leadership would control it, Government Chief Whip Tom Kitt emphasised. "The organisation in the party is run by the leader, the deputy leaders, the parliamentary party chairman, the chief whip and the assistant whip", Kitt said.


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