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trouble in paradise

Relationships cracks between Coalition partners show we're returning to business as usual

The Coalition partners buried their differences during Covid-19, but now the cracks are beginning to show.

CRACKS IN THE relationship between the Coalition partners are beginning to show as the pandemic eases.

The shackles of Covid-19 forged Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party together in the early days of this Government.

With a public health emergency underway when the Government was in its infancy, the last thing the public wanted to see was a group of men – the three party leaders -squabbling over issues like roads, planning and cycleways. 

Instead, they buried their differences for the time being, showing a united a front and telling the public “we’re all in this together”. 

Clashes

And to be fair, the Government has so far managed to avoid coming to a cliff-edge over policy fallouts and clashes.

If you cast your mind back to the previous Government of Fine Gael and various Independent TDs, you’ll recall regular headlines about how the Coalition Government was supposedly on the brink of collapse. 

The Independent Alliance – made up of Shane Ross, Finian McGrath, Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran, Sean Canney and John Halligan – regularly came to blows with their colleagues, with former Taoiseach Enda Kenny not even speaking to Ross for a period. 

Micheál Martin has managed to avoid that headache for now.

But recently, there have been a series of rows and hiccups over a number of issues, including planing and housing reforms, the future of the Cathal Brugha army barracks in Dublin, road projects, and a gas pipeline. 

Over the last two years, ministers in the three Coalition parties have largely been singing off the same hymn sheet.

But the internal report into the Department of Foreign Affairs champagne gathering first signalled that some are now willing to move away from Government talking points.

Earlier this month, Minister of State and Fianna Fáil TD Anne Rabbitte struggled to defend the current Secretary General of the department who was carrying out the review.

In a radio interview on RTÉ, she said she believed the report should be carried out independently.

This was hardly a groundbreaking position, but after two years of each party largely speaking in unison, Rabbitte’s comments were a point of departure. 

Further cracks emerged last week when, during a press conference on the progress being made on housing, Green Party Leader Eamon Ryan announced that the Government would look to utilise the land of Cathal Brugha barracks in Rathmines.

A press release followed which firmed up his comments.

However, some were not happy. Former Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan tweeted out his displeasure at the development, saying that Dublin could not afford to lose another barracks.

Ryan was accused of discourtesy and over-reaching with his announcement.

But while it has been pointed out that while no final decision on the barracks has been made, a feasibility study into its use was agreed by the Coalition and announced as part of the most recent Housing for All progress report.

There have been further issues surrounding Ryan’s opposition to the Shannon LNG pipeline, which has caused tensions with Fine Gael in particular.

The Shannon LNG liquified natural gas import terminal involves a US energy firm, which is understood to be preparing to lodge a new planning application for a €650 million.

The Green Party leader – the Environment Minister – has said allowing the project which would go directly against government policy against fracked gas.

More recently, Fine Gael and the Green Party have also clashed over planning reform. 

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has backed proposals being developed by Fine Gael Minister of State Peter Burke which aim to reduce the number of judicial reviews in the planning system.

Burke has made claims that house building projects are being held up because of the high level of judicial reviews. 

But the Green Party has reservations about it.

Wicklow TD Stephen Matthews, one of those heavily critical of the plans, argues that removing access to justice on planning and environmental matters “doesn’t mean we will get a better or faster planning system; it just means some people will get away with poor planning decisions”.

However, despite the tensions, even a spokesperson for Ryan acknowledged that reform of the planning system is contained in the Programme for Government agreed by the three Coalition parties in June 2020.

When asked about the matter in the Dáil this week, the Taoiseach managed to side-step it by saying he wouldn’t have time to give an explanation in the time allotted. 

Roads

Then there is the issue of roads, which was always going to be a bone of contention in this Government. 

The Greens are all for environmentally-friendly solutions such as public transport and tackling Ireland’s emissions from the sector. They don’t see building more roads as a way to achieve that. 

On the flip side, rural TDs representing their constituents know that public transport links just aren’t what they should be in the countryside, and that the car is the mode of transport used by most. 

The issue emerged during the height of the pandemic when Ryan and Fianna Fáil TD Willie O’Dea clashed over a road in Limerick, something Ryan subsequently had to bow down for. 

More recently, a group of Fine Gael backbenchers voiced their anger after a number of rural national road projects were not funded for this year.

One backbench TD told this publication that while there is a lot of “guff” talked about in terms of the Greens and Fine Gael falling out, it will ultimately come to nothing. 

He said that rural TDs have to kick up a fuss because they have to show they are fighting for roads to their local areas but that when it comes down to it, “this is the price everyone pays in a Coalition Government”.

“There will always have to be compromise. If we don’t get something funded this year, we’ll have to fight to get it next year,” he said. 

“We all knew this when we signed up to the Programme for Government with the Greens. Eamon [Ryan] has to have wins to bring back to his party too. Ultimately, it all comes down to compromise. We won’t win them all,” he said. 

All in all, this Government has managed to avoid all the drama that many other Government’s had before them.

The fight against Covid was a universal problem that all parties could get behind – but times are changing – and the creaks and cracks in the relationship we are seeing of late are merely a sign that we are returning to business as usual. Whether we like it or not.

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