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FactCheck: Would a vote of no confidence in Eoghan Murphy automatically spark an election?

The claim has been made since the motion was tabled by the Social Democrats last week.

Factcheck

AT 8 O’CLOCK tonight, the Dáil will begin debating a second motion of no confidence in Fine Gael’s embattled housing minister Eoghan Murphy in just over a year.

The motion, tabled by the Social Democrats over what party co-leader Róisín Shortall called Murphy’s “failure to solve to the housing crisis”, is being billed as the latest test for Fine Gael’s strained hold on power.

Speculation has mounted in recent days that Fine Gael may face a tight vote due to Dáil arithmetic and the abstention of Fianna Fáil under the confidence and supply arrangement. 

That’s led to suggestions that a defeat for the government would mean a snap general election – something both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have been keen to avoid.

But others – including Shortall – have dismissed this as “scaremongering” and said that a defeat for the government wouldn’t have any impact on the life of the government.

So who is right?

The Claim

The suggestion that tonight’s vote could trigger a general election has been put forward a number of times since the no confidence motion was tabled last week. 

On Wednesday, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin told the Irish Examiner that his party would not support the motion because of the implications it would have for the Fine Gael-led government.

“It would end up with an election during Christmas. It is a cynical publicity stunt,” he told the newspaper.

But many opposition TDs have claimed this isn’t the case, and that there are no rules that say the Taoiseach would have to dissolve the Dáil if the motion is passed.

The Evidence

Speaking about the motion during Leaders’ Questions last Wednesday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar also hit out at the Social Democrats for using the vote to garner publicity.

He said:

One thing that will not make a difference, and I guarantee you, is the motion of no confidence and a general election at Christmas week or the week after.

So it’s not just Martin who is suggesting the government will fall if tonight’s motion passes, although the Fianna Fáil leader’s claim is more clear-cut.

For context, it’s important to consider the numbers that allow Fine Gael to hold the balance of power in the Dáil.

There are currently 158 TDs. The government, made up of Fine Gael TDs and members of the Independent Alliance, holds 54 seats – just over a third of the total number in the Dáil.

Fianna Fáil – which has 45 TDs – will abstain under the confidence and supply arrangement, as will the Ceann Comhairle.

This leaves 58 TDs, meaning the motion could theoretically be passed by four votes tonight (the government will vote against the motion).

If Fine Gael can get three TDs on its side, it would be able to defeat the vote with a majority of 57 (versus 55 TDs who would vote in favour of the motion).

But sources have stated that if tonight’s vote is tied at 56 for each side, Murphy would still be forced to resign because the Dáil will have failed to show confidence in him.

The government has suggested that this would lead to a general election, but opposition TDs have disputed this.

Sinn Féin’s housing spokesman Eoin O Broin pointed to other instances during the lifetime of the current government when ministers have resigned without precipitating a general election.

“We saw it with Frances Fitzgerald and Denis Naughten,” he told TheJournal.ie.

“Ultimately, this is a matter for the Taoiseach and calling an election is his prerogative. Given that Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil don’t want an election, it doesn’t have to happen.

“There’s nothing in Dáil standing orders or rules that says if a vote of no confidence in a minister passes, that the government has to fall.”

Standing orders

Fitzgerald and Naughten both resigned before a vote of confidence in them was held, so those examples don’t provide an exact precedent for what would happen to the government if tonight’s motion passes.

But O Broin is correct in saying Dáil standing orders make no special provisions for confidence motions: they are simply treated like any other motion.

The current government has already been defeated in a number of motions during its lifetime, including in votes on building standards and on the Occupied Territories Bill.

Those defeats did not lead to a general election, so there is no evidence here for any reason why a similar result tonight would automatically mean a general election would be called.

Something that would trigger a general election would be the passing of a motion of no confidence in the Taoiseach or the government as a whole – as opposed to a specific minister.

This is based on Article 28.10 of the constitution, which states:

The Taoiseach shall resign from office upon his ceasing to retain the support of a majority in Dáil Éireann.

This has happened twice before: once in 1982, when the Fianna Fáil-led government lost by two votes after the Workers Party withdrew support over GUBU and other scandals; and again in 1992, when another Fianna Fáil-led government lost by 11 votes after the Progressive Democrats left the ruling coalition over a row relating to the Beef Tribunal.

‘Proxy vote’

A government source said that it would be the Taoiseach’s prerogative to decide whether to call an election if the government is defeated tonight, because it would be seen as difficult for Varadkar’s government to carry on in power.

A Fine Gael spokesperson also said this evening that the motion was a “proxy vote” for the Taoiseach and the government, because the loss of a minister was a “crucial matter”.

The suggestion is that if the vote passes, Fine Gael and the Independent Alliance would no longer have a majority to continue leading the government, requiring the dissolution of the Dáil under the Constitution.

Fianna Fáil could be seen to have breached the Programme for Partnership for Government agreed in 2016 by abstaining – the document states that the party must vote with the government on budgets and votes of confidence. 

And there is precedent for this. In January 1982, the 22nd Dáil was dissolved when the minority Fine Gael-Labour coalition lost a vote on that year’s budget.

But despite all of this, there is still no obligation for Varadkar to dissolve the Dáil and call an election if the government is defeated tonight.

TheJournal.ie contacted Fianna Fáil for clarification about Martin’s claim, but a party spokesperson said he was unable to be reached for comment.

Instead, a statement from the spokesperson implied that tonight’s motion was akin to one of confidence in the Taoiseach or government.

The full statement read:

If a motion of no confidence in the Taoiseach or the Government is passed, or a motion of confidence is defeated, the Constitution dictates that the both the Taoiseach and the Government must then resign.
The President then, at his discretion, dissolves the Dáil and an election is held within 18 to 28 days.

Fine Gael was also contacted for comment, but did not respond by the time of publication.

Verdict

There is no obligation under Dáil standing orders for the government to call an election if a motion of no confidence in one of its ministers is passed.

Micheál Martin claimed that defeat for the government in tonight’s motion would lead to a general election before Christmas, and a Fianna Fáil spokesperson likened tonight’s motion to a confidence vote in the government when asked for clarity.

However, there is no basis for this, as the motion of no confidence applies only to Eoghan Murphy, and not the Taoiseach or government as a whole.

Even if Murphy is forced to resign as a minister, the government would still have a working majority in budgetary and confidence matters.

Opposition TDs say the vote is not a motion of no confidence in the government as a whole, but rather a discrete vote of confidence in Murphy, which is why they say their motion will not necessitate a general election.

It does not stand up to fact that Cabinet will not be able to pass any legislation if Murphy is forced to resign, particularly as the government would still have Fianna Fáil and the Independent Alliance for support.

Therefore, we rate this claim: FALSE 

As per our verdict guide, this means: The claim is inaccurate.

There are no rules which back up the claim that the Taoiseach must seek the dissolution of the Dáil and call an election if the government is defeated in tonight’s vote.

This would only have to happen if a motion of no confidence in the Taoiseach or the Government passed, but tonight’s motion is not the same as that.

The Taoiseach may seek the dissolution of the Dáil if the motion is defeated, but it is his prerogative.

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here.

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