21 June 2007 Edition
Sinn Féin TDs will fight tooth and nail for speaking rights
Campaigning role more important than ever in new Dáil
BY MÍCHEÁL Mac DONNCHA
In this paper following the 2002 General Election the present writer stated that the result was not a new Government but a new Opposition. Fine Gael was devastated and gains for the Greens, Sinn Féin and Independents gave a different character to the Dáil.
It was to be hoped that the modest successes for the broad left in that election might have led to co-operation between Labour, the Greens, Sinn Féin and those independents that could be described as progressive. But early in the 29th Dáil a pattern set in.
Standing Orders meant that individual TDs or parties with fewer than seven TDs were excluded from many important speaking opportunities. A ‘Technical Group’ was established comprising the Greens, Sinn Féin and Independents. It exceeded the Labour Party in TD numbers and thus, as well as securing speaking rights, it took precedence over the Labour Party in speaking order. This was not something the members of the Technical Group were concerned about. Speaking order did not matter to them so long as they had speaking rights. Nonetheless the Labour Party, still under the leadership of Ruairi Quinn, took exception and Quinn did a shoddy deal with Bertie Ahern whereby rules were changed to move Labour up the pecking order. In return other rules were changed so that the Taoiseach had to spend far less time answering questions in the Dáil.
When Pat Rabbitte took over as Labour leader the journey to Mullingar began. Labour again hitched its wagon to Fine Gael and the Greens were eventually lined up to join that particular Coalition train – if possible. Joint Fine Gael/Labour/Green motions began to appear on the Dáil order paper.
The main electoral beneficiaries of all this were Fine Gael – the only party to achieve a net increase in seats in the 2007 General Election. The robust performance of Fianna Fáil was unexpected. The whole result restored the dominance of the two conservative parties. But above all it has consolidated the rule of the politician from Drumcondra whose self-effacing man-on-the-street image conceals a political skill as a deal maker with a keen sense of how to co-opt erstwhile opponents to suit his own and his party’s political interests. Thus he has put together a Government involving PDs, Greens and independents, that links politicians as diverse as Ciaran Cuffe and Jackie Healy Rae.
Bertie Ahern has ensured himself a Dáil majority by concluding a deal with the Greens which gives that party very little in policy terms. But in the ‘mercs and percs’ department the six Green TDs have been given as much as their PD predecessors who had eight seats. The PDs hold onto the Health portfolio. The presence of Mary Harney in that Department will be a constant reminder to the Greens that they have entered a Government that retains the right-wing ethos underlying public policy-making for the past decade.
If the Greens do cut and run at any stage Ahern can always rely on the Independents whose support he has secured. Jackie Healy-Rae, Michael Lowry, Beverly Flynn and Finian McGrath are unlikely to desert unless the promised benefits for their constituencies do not materialise.
Ahern is hoping for another bonus from his deal. He is keeping his fingers crossed that it will prevent a new Technical Group from being set up, thus barring Sinn Féin from many speaking opportunities in the Dáil. That particular bonus would help him to keep his own Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party quiet as they would welcome anything that might appear to stem the future growth of Sinn Féin. However, the establishment of a new Technical Group remains a possibility.
One thing is certain – Sinn Féin will not be quietly confined to the margins and its TDs will fight tooth and nail to ensure their speaking rights and the right to full representation for their voters.
The configuration of the new Dáil will make the campaigning role of Sinn Féin even more important. The Green element of the Government makes it vulnerable on many fronts, given the previous stand taken by the Greens on such issues as hospital co-location, the US military at Shannon, Rossport, the N3 at Tara, GM crops, public transport and so on. Fianna Fáil will hope to make the Greens a mudguard. But they could also become a brake on some of the excesses of the FF/PD Government. Either way, only determined pressure inside and outside the Dáil will be able to influence policy direction and expose the contradictions.
At the same time Sinn Féin must get its message out as widely as possible. While members may have diverse views on party tactics before and during the election, it was fought on a radical and relevant manifesto that provides a sound basis for campaigning in the months and years ahead. The planning for that work should begin now.