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Dublin: 22 °C Tuesday 4 August, 2020
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Gaffes, faux pas, blunders: Is there a Final Destination curse on this government?

Micheál Martin will be happy to see the back of these last few weeks.

FIVE WEEKS AGO today, the members of this fresh new government had a pep in their step.

Yesterday, the Finance Minster Paschal Donohoe nearly got taken out by a giant speaker falling over at an event.

An “alarmingly accurate visual metaphor” for the coalition so far, as one journalist put it.

It was little over a month ago that the lack-of-government stalemate ended after weeks of talks and negotiations. The new government was eager to get stuck in to the job at hand. 

Most governments get off to a a bumpy start, but no one could have predicted the series of crises and gaffes this government has got caught up in.

Just when one misstep was over there was another cringeworthy moment lying in wait just around the corner. Somewhere you could only imagine that Taoiseach Micheál Martin was holding his head in his hands, rocking back and forth. 

Martin has waited a long time to get his moment in the sun – but these last few weeks could never have been what he envisaged.

Instead of column inches describing this government being a breath of fresh air, they have been filled with comments about a government that needs to get its house in order. 

Cabinet snubs

On 27 June, hopes were high for this government.

A new fresh Cabinet was announced by Martin. What could go wrong? Lots, apparently.

“Bitterly disappointed” and “grossly insulted”. That was how some Fianna Fáil and even some Fine Gael politicians described the ministerial snubs. Highly-paid TDs giving out about not getting the top jobs did not play well to the public mood. 

While people across the country were wondering if they would still have a job next month, listening to politicians complain about not getting the nod was not very palatable. 

Running alongside this controversy was the lack of representation of the west coast of the country. Another Dublin-centric Cabinet was the common viewpoint bellowed out in the Convention Centre, where the Dáil is sitting due to the Covid-19 restrictions.

Nonetheless, Martin tried to smooth over the criticisms from within his own party by telling members he had to make difficult choices when appointing his Cabinet.

At a parliamentary party meeting the Fianna Fáil leader said he understood the anger expressed by some party members. 

He said many had justified expectations given their performance over the last number of years that they would get a seat around the Cabinet table. But there were not enough seats for all the bums vying for a job.

Barry Cowen

Just when Martin thought he had escaped mutiny from his own party, a new controversy surfaced within the first week of the new government – this time with one of his newly appointed ministers.

004 Barry Cowen (1) Barry Cowen apologising n the Dáil. Source: RollingNews.ie

It was the government’s first major test and one that led to the sacking of a minister.

Agriculture Minister Barry Cowen had received a fine and a ban for drink-driving while holding a provisional licence. The story created heightened tensions in the government but there was a view that after his apology, all would settle down.

The following weekend, it emerged that a Garda Pulse record suggested he had tried to avoid the checkpoint.

Cowen strongly denied this, and he showed the Taoiseach the garda record he was disputing. Cowen said that under legal advice, he would not be making any further comment on the matter.

The Taoiseach told him that he would have to face more questions in the Dáil.

Cowen refused. Martin then sacked him.

Losing a minister so early on – nothing could top that. That was the thinking in government circles. But the gaffes just kept on coming.

No fanfare announcement

The Taoiseach might have hoped that he would be able to give the positive press conferences his predecessor did about reopening the country, but Martin had to deliver the bad news to the public.

Ireland would not be progressing to Phase Four and the reopening of the pubs would be pushed back from mid-July until 10 August. 

A series of mixed messages followed this announcement, with even those within Cabinet being critical that the government was not singing off the same hymn sheet when it came to international travel and the green list.

A couple of days later, when ministers were keen to show they were working “flat out”, footage taken from inside the Convention Centre showed Eamon Ryan sleeping as he was called on to vote during a motion on giving lower-paid workers a living wage.

In the video, captured by Oireachtas TV cameras, Ryan’s name is heard being called a number of times, before Fianna Fáil’s chief whip Jack Chambers is seen attempting to get his attention.

The incident went viral, and led to online criticism of Ryan for sleeping on the job. An own goal by Ryan, who was facing into his own leadership contest.

23072020_JB1-63 Source: Rollingnews.ie

No sooner had they moved on from that little incident, the government drove horse and carriage into another one.

This one was on pay rises for politicians. Never a good sell, particularly at a time when thousands of people are out of  work and businesses are struggling to keep their heads above water.

Pay rises in a pandemic

The controversy surrounded the three super junior ministers in government. Under the legislation only two of them were to get paid at a higher rate.

The government pushed out a line about pay equality as a reason to bridge the €16,000 pay gap. This messaging doesn’t fly with the likes of teachers who have been fighting for pay parity for years. 

The move – which was heavily criticised – would have seen all three junior ministers avail of an extra €16,000 a year on top of the minister of state salary of €124,439.

In a bid to make some amends, it was announced that the extra €16k was to be waived, instead the three junior ministers would share the existing allowance leaving them with a little over €10,000 extra apiece.

The Taoiseach also announced a pay cut in salary across the board in Cabinet in a bid to draw a line under the debacle, but it later emerged that even with the pay cut, the Taoiseach is still gong to earn more than his predecessor.

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NO FEE GIS NORTH SOUTH MINISTERIAL COUNCIL PRESS BRIEFING JB4 (1) Source: Rollingnews.ie

Another blip along the way, was the shock election of Independent Galway TD Catherine Connolly as Leas Ceann Comhairle over Fine Gael candidate Fergus O’Dowd.

Given the government holds the majority in the House, this was seen as a big embarrassment, even as all parties wished Connolly well.

Cutting-off pay

Another own goal for the government was the disastrous handling of changes to the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) this week. 

Martin said on Monday that people in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment should be seeking work.

His comments come after Social Protection Minister Heather Humphreys said earlier that day that “if you find that you’re going to be permanently unemployed because your job isn’t there, then you should be looking for work”. 

The change to the criteria that those in receipt of the PUP should be actively seeking work mysteriously appeared overnight on the department’s website, something the Taoiseach said he would look into.

There was also the issue of travel when on the payment or jobseekers, and the revelation that over 100 people had had their payment cut off due to leaving the country. 

The Taoiseach said a review of the 104 cases involved would be undertaken.

A number of agencies such as FLAC weighed in and questioned the legality of ceasing payments due to travel. After the backlash, the government decided to allow those receiving PUP to go on holidays to green list countries without losing their weekly payment.

A related headache was the use of social welfare inspectors at the airports – something the Taoiseach said has been taking place at ports and airports since 2014. However, again, the legality of such a practice is now being questioned by the Data Protection Commissioner.

Dissent in government ranks

Just when the government thought it could breathe a sigh of relief on the last day of the term before the summer holidays, another unexpected incident happened.  

The Taoiseach and his coalition partners thought they were out the gap, but then Green Party TD Neasa Hourigan voted against a government bill on extending the rent freeze and eviction ban. 

Junior Minister Joe O’Brien abstained. Not exactly the sign of a government that has jelled yet.

Martin will be happy to see the back of the last few weeks, and will hope the autumn term will bring more cohesiveness to his new government.

With the number of gaffes this government has totted up in such a short time, anyone would wonder if there isn’t some sort of Final Destination movie-themed curse trying to end this government.

In the film, a group of teenagers are doomed to die from the very start, after they somehow manage to cheat death. It plays out with the audience bearing witness to a series of gory but inevitable deaths. 

If such faux pas continue, there will be little hope of all three parties signing off on the Budget come October. A suggestion: a team building weekend away for the Cabinet. It couldn’t hurt.

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