The current government has already had to overcome many contentious issues in its short lifespan, striving to maintain stability. With more challenges on the horizon and ongoing within the government, we must ask if this stability will hold. The controversy surrounding CETA and rumours that Green Party TDs may leave the party has raised eyebrows recently, and fierce opposition to CETA has forced the government to push the Bill to an Oireachtas Committee for review. Pairing this with battles with unions over the reopening of schools and recent issues with thousands travelling abroad for non-essential reasons means the government may be facing a rocky couple of months.
The government has been accused of sending mixed messages regarding Covid and what the next couple of months may hold. Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has reportedly told the media that the government will ‘save the summer’ and that there ‘will be a summer’ that resembles one we all desire. These hopes have been dampened somewhat by Taoiseach Micheál Martin, stating that the current level of tough restrictions will likely continue past Easter and into May until a low level of infection is achieved. This conflicting narrative between coalition partners has compounded a growing sense of frustration among the public.
Only four weeks ago, many in the cabinet believed there was no valid reason for schools to remain shut, despite climbing infection rates and sustained pressure on the health service. Minister of State for Special Education and Inclusion, Josepha Madigan, in an interview with Virgin Media News, said that there was no reason why the nation’s school couldn’t open after the extended Christmas break. Just days after this interview, the government announced that all schools would move to remote learning.
This unclear communication from the government has caused enormous stress for parents, particularly parents of children with additional needs who were left behind in the first widespread closure of schools. How can one expect parents and students to plan when they cannot receive definite answers to essential questions from their government? At times, they have seemed uncertain of their own responses to many situations. Thankfully, those with special and additional needs are returning to school after back and forth with unions. However, the government still faces another hurdle in the form of the Leaving Certificate.
The Leaving Certificate was poorly handled by the previous government last year, mainly due to inconsistent messaging and delayed decision making. Sadly, this year is not so different, much to the dismay of students, parents, and teachers. The Department of Education has promised an announcement regarding the Leaving Certificate for weeks now, but 6th year students and teachers still remain in the dark. The Minister is currently meeting with unions regarding the Leaving Cert, but discussion took a negative turn on Thursday evening when the ASTI suddenly withdrew from talks.
The relationship between the Minister of Education and unions is undoubtedly strained and has become increasingly negative in recent months. The Department of Education and Skills hasn’t always tried its best to heal the relationship, oftentimes bashing the unions in letters - a risky move considering the deserved influence and power of teachers unions in Ireland. The ever straining dynamic between union and department is something the government needs to navigate carefully as the education system faces more uncertainty in the coming months.
While current challenges and pressures stem from many external sources, the coalition’s working relationship still has many challenges to overcome. The Green Party has faced many internal party struggles in recent weeks with high profile councillors such as Peter Kavanagh, Sophie Nicoullaud, and Liam Sinclair quitting the party. Councillors and former members have accused party members of harbouring a culture of toxicity. Neasa Hourigan TD confirmed the hostility and toxic attitude of many in the party in an interview with the Journal.ie, saying many in the party would be relieved if she left. These rumblings of dissatisfaction among Green TDs and Councillors have become more prevalent recently with the controversial CETA Bill that was due to be pushed through the Dáil.
However, it is glaringly apparent that transferring the bill to a committee is a way for Eamon Ryan to keep all Green deputies and councillors satisfied to avoid any further deflection from the parties as it has been reported by several media outlets that both Nessa Hourigan and Patrick Costello are ready to leave the party if CETA is ratified by the Greens and government. While losing two deputies wouldn’t collapse the government, it would certainly weaken the relationship between the coalition partners and the Green Party’s position in government. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will not want to see TDs leaving the government this early, as it would project an image of instability and lack of unity. This is not what the government wants to project as the nation still grapples with high Covid rates and deaths. However, the Green Party is not the only government party facing internal issues.
Those that keep up with journalists on Twitter who report on the outcomes of Parliamentary Party meetings may notice a common theme from Fianna Fáil meetings - dissatisfaction with the leadership. Micheál Martin continues to face criticism from his party regarding his leadership and performance as Taoiseach with rumours building of a potential leadership challenge. Poor poll performances paired with factors such as rotating Ministers for Agriculture and fighting with unions has left many Fianna Fáil TDs questioning Martin’s capability as a leader. A recent canvass of Fianna Fáil TDs, ministers, and senators showed an overwhelming majority saying they do not see Martin leading the party after his term as Taoiseach.
Barry Cowen has been one of Martin’s most vocal critics, with some stating a leadership challenge may occur before Martin’s term as Taoiseach is over. This is unlikely, but cannot be ruled out. Micheál Martin has to communicate with his colleagues in order to retain their support. A leadership challenge for the largest party in the coalition in the middle of its term would be an unwelcome distraction and may cause even more division.
The government has already managed to survive some tumultuous times, but it is still a young government, and it is clear that many more difficulties lay ahead. Green defectors and a possible Fianna Fáil leadership challenge is something we all have to keep an eye on. Public support for all three government parties fell in the latest polls, with Fianna Fáil and the Greens on a sustained downward spiral since the election. Whether this coalition government lasts the full term remains to be seen as there appears to be no strength in unity for this government to date.