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thin ice

Naughten leaves Fine Gael short on numbers, but Brexit may mean we avoid an election

The slight Dáil majority enjoyed by Fine Gael has become even more wafer-thin in recent weeks.

A WEEK IS a long time in politics, as the saying goes. So too is a day, just ask Denis Naughten.

The embattled Communications Minister resigned on Thursday after the Taoiseach asked him to reflect on his position the night before.

Pressure had been mounting on Naughten following revelations about a dinner he had with the head of the only remaining group bidding for the National Broadband Plan (NBP) contract – details of which were first reported by The Times.

Naughten admitted to attending a dinner with David McCourt – head of the Granahan McCourt consortium – in New York in July. During the week it emerged the minister had also facilitated a lunch in Leinster House for McCourt’s daughter in April. / YouTube

Members of Fine Gael have defended junior minister Pat Breen for also meeting McCourt, saying he has no role in the NBP. You can read more about the series of events here

Announcing his resignation, Naughten told the Dáil he had offered to pass over the NBP process to Breen or another minister, but Leo Varadkar refused.

“The Taoiseach does not have confidence in me,” Naughten said, before leaving the Dáil chamber and his ministry.

Crunching the numbers 

So, what does this mean for Fine Gael? The party has been leading a minority government since the 2016 general election, with the backing of Fianna Fáil and the support of a number of independent TDs including Naughten.

The slight majority enjoyed by Fine Gael has become even more wafer-thin in recent weeks – Louth TD Peter Fitzpatrick left the party earlier this month.

So while the government may not fall just yet, passing legislation has become more complicated. With Fitzpatrick now an independent, Fine Gael has 49 TDs in the Dáil - just four more than Fianna Fáil’s 45.

There are 157 TDs voting in the Dáil, excluding Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl (Fianna Fail). If Fianna Fáil abstains from voting in confidence and budgetary matters, as set out in its Confidence and Supply agreement with Fine Gael, that leaves 113 votes remaining – meaning the government needs at least 57 votes to pass legislation. 

File Photo COMMUNICATIONS MINISTER DENIS Naughten is due to meet with management figures from Facebook in New York tomorrow to discuss revelations about the social media networkÕs approach to harmful or illegal content. End. Denis Naughten Leah Farrell / Leah Farrell / /

It has the support of four Independent Alliance TDs, each of whom are either ministers or ministers of state, and independent minister Katherine Zappone. 

Former minister Sean Canney quit the Independent Alliance earlier this year but pledged to continue to support the government on budgetary matters and in confidence votes. Independent TDs Michael Lowry and Noel Grealish also generally support the government but that’s not set in stone. 

Naughten and Fitzpatrick both said they would deal with the issue of supporting the government on a case-by-case basis.

When asked about Dáil arithmetic yesterday, Varadkar told reporters: “Obviously it is a fact that we’ve lost one or two TDs, TDs who were supporting the government and now are not or at least aren’t all the time.

Notwithstanding that, if you look at the votes that have happened in the last couple of weeks (a no confidence motion in Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy and the Budget vote), we won all of them with a secure majority.

He said the “next test will be on Tuesday”, when the Dáil is due to vote on whether or not to ratify the ministerial appointments the Taoiseach makes on foot of Naughten’s resignation. 

Election time? 

There has been plenty of speculation about a general election taking place this winter – well before Naughten stepped down.

Indeed, Tuesday’s Budget was deemed an ‘election Budget’ by many – but Varadkar downplayed this in an interview with just hours before Naughten resigned.

Brexit is one of the main reasons many people think calling an election in the coming months would be foolish.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin yesterday wrote to Varadkar asking that such a scenario be avoided until at least after a deal has been reached between Britain and the EU, given the current uncertainty about the situation and how it could affect Ireland. 

letter Fianna Fáil Fianna Fáil

“The Irish people would, I am sure you agree, be rightly concerned at any risk that a general election campaign would have on [Brexit] talks at such a crucial period and an uncertain post-election situation.

“An election during this critical time would create dangerous instability during a period when the Brexit deal would be derailed by the constantly changing situation in Westminster,” Martin wrote. 

Opinion polls 

Opinion polls are another factor likely to impact when the government will decide to go to the people – unless, of course, events overtake them. 

Fine Gael has regularly topped recent opinion polls, meaning the party may favour having an election sooner rather than later in a bid to capitalise on this and strengthen its mandate.

However, the results of a poll released yesterday indicate that Fianna Fáil is closing the gap in support between the two largest parties. 

1,000 adults were interviewed over the phone between 3 and 10 October for a Red C poll carried out on behalf of Paddy Power. The findings show that Fine Gael retains the highest level of support at 32%, down one point from last month.

Fianna Fáil increased its support by five points, up to 27%. Sinn Féin is unchanged on 14%, while Labour dropped one point to 5%. Independents are down one point to 12%, while the Independent Alliance are also down one point to 3%.

Solidarity/People Before Profit are unchanged at 2%. The Social Democrats are down one point to 1% and the Green Party is up one point to 3%. Others are unchanged on 1%. The margin of error is 3%.

Many politicians may want to avoid an election for now – particularly if the outcome would do little to affect the makeup of the Dáil. They will, of course, say that opinion polls are just that, and the only poll that matters is on election day – whenever that may be. 

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