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Explainer: Has last night's controversial NMH vote brought an election closer?

Absolutely not, according to Tánaiste Leo Varadkar.

PastedImage-18638 Sinn Féin's NMH motion was passed in the Dáil. Source: Oireachtas.ie

SPEAKING IN THE Dáil today, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar sought to play down any suggestions that the suspension of two Green Party TDs could spell trouble for the viability of the government. 

“You can be rest assured that the government still has a majority in the Dáil,” he told People Before Profit TD Mick Barry, “people need not fear an election any time soon.”

Barry had been needling Varadkar that the suspensions of deputies Neasa Hourigan and Patrick Costello “could be the least of the government’s worries” come autumn. 

Hourigan and Costello were suspended from the Green parliamentary party for voting in favour of a Sinn Féin motion on the National Maternity Hospital. 

The motion was easily passed but only because most government TDs abstained, something which the opposition called “breathtaking cynicism”

The decision to sanction the pair means that they are still members of the Green Party but outside the party’s Dáil tent, as it were. 

file-photo-the-green-party-parliamentary-party-has-voted-to-suspend-tds-neasa-hourigan-and-patrick-costello-who-last-night-voted-against-the-government-on-a-sinn-fein-motion-concerning-the-new-nation Hourigan and her party leader pictured in 2019. Source: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

Party leader Eamon Ryan called it a “strong” decision by his party, insisting that governments work best when all members vote together. 

Voting together is indeed what gives governments power in the Dáil and the more members that do so the more stable a government is.

This is why the status of the rebel TDs as now outside of the Green parliamentary party has raised questions over the stability of the current coalition. 

Governments must be able to pass bills to function and bills must be passed by a majority in the Dáil, so generally speaking a government must have over half of the TDs in the Dáil. 

This is not always the case, such as in Fine Gael’s minority government 2016-2020, but it it is the case this time around so let’s not get into that. 

Where are we with the current arithmetic in the 160-person Dáil? 

When this current government got their seals of office in June 2020 Fianna Fáil had 38 TDs, Fine Gael had 35 TDs and the Green Party had 12 TDs. 

One of Fianna Fáil’s TDs, Sean Ó Fearghaíl, was elected as Ceann Comhairle for the second time in a row, so he isn’t tallied as part of the head count. The Ceann Comhairle does have a casting vote in the case of a tie in a Dáil but does not ordinarily vote so isn’t counted in this instance. 

So for much of the term of the current government the Coalition has had a total of 84 TDs (37+35+12). 

In total there are 159 voting TDs in the Dáil so on paper the government has a relatively slim but safe majority, with 80 being the magic number to have over half of members.

However, since then the rough and tumble of government has put a strain on the cohesion of those numbers.

For example, Marc MacSharry TD resigned from the Fianna Fail parliamentary party last year, reducing Fianna Fáil’s raw voting number to 36. Fine Gael’s number also reduced by one after the resignation of Eoghan Murphy

If we were to take Hourigan and Costello from the Green Party ranks now as well, you could say the Coalition’s numbers have dropped to 80, just at the magic number of 80. 

However, just because these members are outside of the parliamentary party it does not mean that they won’t continue to vote along government lines, indeed Ryan expressed hope today that Hourigan and Costello would continue to do so. 

leo 2 Leo Varadkar in the Dáil today. Source: Rollingnews.ie

In reality though, the government isn’t quite as beholden to absolute discipline among its TDs as those numbers suggest.

When government bills are being voted on they are usually supported by a number of other Independent TDs as well, making the passage of the bill a lot smoother. 

In total there are 19 Independent TDs in the Dáil and several of them regularly vote in support of government bills.

Some independents were in fact formerly members of the government parties, such as Seán Canney, Peter Fitzpatrick and Michael Lowry, who were all members of Fine Gael at various points during their political lives. 

For example, this week’s government-sponsored Sick Leave Bill passed by the Dáil by 83 votes to 54, with 11 Independents voting for it. 

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What this means is that while the government numbers may look tight on paper, it hasn’t really proved to be a problem yet, something Ryan alluded to himself this morning. 

“I haven’t seen a vote that’s been close in the Dail. It is tight, but as I said it’s a well functioning, stable and committed government,” he argued. 

Even though the government’s numbers are perhaps more solid than they look at first glance, relying on the tacit support of independents is perhaps not a long-term plan either. 

The reality in the Dáil at the minute is that the single largest voting party, Sinn Féin, is in opposition and will try to test the strength of government numbers every chance it gets. 

Sinn Féin has eased off its previous tactic of calling confidence votes in various ministers but is likely to ratchet up the pressure again when the winter months arrive. 

Indeed some on the opposition benches aren’t hanging around, with Aontú TD Peadar Tóibín today calling on the government to “prove their majority” by way of a confidence vote.

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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