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Government prepares to go to bat for Coveney as 'normal politics' returns to Leinster House

Politicians return today after the summer recess.

LAST UPDATE | Sep 15th 2021, 1:05 PM

POLITICIANS WILL TODAY return to Leinster House full-time after over a year of Dáil sittings in the Convention Centre. 

The Convention Centre on Dublin’s quays was used throughout the pandemic as it was large enough to allow for social distancing.

At the start of the pandemic, social distancing guidelines and a cap on the number of TDs in the chamber were put in place for Dáil sittings in Leinster House. However, in April 2020 the Convention Centre was chosen as the location for all TDs to be able to sit to vote on a new Taoiseach. Following that, it was used more regularly, not just for voting days, but normal sitting days of the Dáil also.

Leinster House has still been used at times during the pandemic, like on 10 November 2020, when TDs sat in Leinster House and then moved to the Convention Centre ahead of a confidence vote in Tánaiste Leo Varadkar.

In what is seen as a return to ‘normal politics’, both the Dáil and Seanad will return to the Leinster House complex on a full-time basis from today.

The Dáil public viewing gallery is set to be used as extra seating for TDs to facilitate the full return of all 160 TDs. 

The canteen and Dáil bar has already reopened. 

The new arrangement will be tested today with the first day of the new autumn term kicking off with a motion of no confidence in Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney amid the fallout from the Katherine Zappone controversy.

It is understood that staggered voting could be used to avoid groups gathering together, with the public gallery also used to allow for the votes to be taken. 

Speaking at the Fine Gael think-in in Trim this week, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said it was a “difficult summer” in which party members felt “let down”.

“It will be an opportunity to refresh ourselves, to regroup and reset after what was not a good summer for Fine Gael, but more importantly to rebound and focus on the really important work that we are going to over the next couple of months,” Varadkar said.

Despite the progress in the roll out of the Covid-19 vaccine programme, the controversy surrounding Zappone in her planned appointment to a UN special envoy role has overshadowed such successes, he said. 

Coveney is set to be safe after today’s confidence vote, with his party rallying behind him and with the Taoiseach and other Fianna Fáil ministers speaking out in support of the foreign affairs minister.

Green Party TDs are also expected to support the government in the vote.

Labour has said the confidence motion is not a priority the party but that its TDs will not vote confidence in Coveney as it does not have confidence in the administration. 

“We will vote against the government as we have done from the outset of this government, we have said we have no confidence in this administration and whenever there is a confidence vote in relation to it that is the stance we will take,” Labour’s Brendan Howlin TD told reporters this morning. 

Howlin said that while Coveney is likely to win the vote he hopes that the government listens to the arguments outlined because the initial process in selecting Zappone was “quite frankly unacceptable”. 

Howlin said that while issues such as housing, health and climate change are of greater priority it is not possible to make significant progress on these issues “if there isn’t confidence in politicians”.

The Social Democrats will also vote against the government and Coveney, with co-leader Róisín Shortall TD saying today it is not possible to have confidence in the minister “after all that has happened”. 

Other smaller opposition parties are likely to back Sinn Féin’s move against Coveney.

All eyes will be on which backbencher Fianna Fáil TDs might choose to be absent for the vote this evening. The Taoiseach has said a six month suspension for TDs that vote against the government or abstain from the vote will apply.

Some disgruntled Fianna Failers resent their leader and party having to publicly speak up for a Fine Gael minister, but as set out in the programme for government, parties must be united for motions of confidence and support the government.

As a veteran of a number of coalition governments, Howlin said today that a government is “fatally wounded” when “trust breaks down” between coalition partners. 

“You might not hear it voiced in the Dáil today but I know from talking to Fianna Fáil members, not only elected members, but members of the party that they feel taken for granted, that there is an imbalance in the government and that Fine Gael believe that they really are the government, and that the rest of their to make up the numbers,” he said.

The confidence motion in Coveney is set to be debated from just before 6pm today for about two hours.

Speaking about why her party is choosing to move on the minister on the first day back of the Dáil, Sinn Féin leader Mary McDonald said:

“The issue here is around the entire culture of Irish politics now for a century, exemplified by Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.”

“This is a mess of their making. Are we prepared to look the other way and tolerate crony politics? The answer is no,” she said.

The coming days 

Other than the motion in Coveney, there is a busy week of politics ahead.

Cabinet meets this morning to discuss the Sale of Alcohol Bill.

Minister Helen McEntee, who is currently on maternity leave, made a commitment a few months ago to reform the licensing laws in Ireland.

Minister Hildegarde Naughton will today seek Government approval to draft the General Scheme of the Bill that could see extended closing times for bars and possibly nightclubs reformed, as well as bringing  Sunday trading times into line with the rest of the week.

Minister for Arts and Tourism Catherine Martin will also bring a report to Cabinet on the night-time economy.

The Government’s legislation programme for the autumn session will also be brought to Cabinet for approval and publication by the Chief Whip today.

Health Minister Stephen Donnelly is also set to update his ministerial colleagues on the National Vaccination Programme. Details of the booster programme and the COVAX plan will also be discussed. 

Leaders’ Questions will resume today, as will committee meetings, with representatives from the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) appearing before the Oireachtas Health Committee today. 

The progress of the National Broadband Plan is also up for discussion at the Oireachtas Communications Committee, with some concerns about the pace of the roll out given the move to more people working from home and needing reliable broadband.

Tomorrow, the Public Accounts Committee will dive into the array of procurement issues the government has dealt with since the onset of the pandemic, in an attempt to see if taxpayers’ money was spent wisely at a time when regular procurement rules around tendering went out the window during the public health emergency.

The busy political week comes ahead of the Taoiseach travelling to New York next week to attend meetings and events to mark Ireland hold the presidency of the UN Security Council this month.

The UN Security Council presidency rotates between members of the Security Council each month, with Ireland taking the presidency role on from India.

As part of the presidency, the Taoiseach will chair a meeting of the Security Council in New York on 23 September, which concerns climate and security – a key concern for Africa in particular.

- With reporting by Rónán Duffy

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