The foundations underpinning the Fine Gael-led minority government of the 32nd Dáil were weak to begin with but have steadily been eroded in the four years since the last general election.
Initially led by Enda Kenny, with Leo Varadkar assuming the leadership of Fine Gael and the taoiseach’s office in mid-2017, the Fine Gael-led minority Government was allowed function thanks to the acquiescence of Fianna Fáil.
Micheál Martin turned down Fine Gael’s offer of a full-blown coalition in 2016 and instead entered into a confidence-and-supply agreement, which saw his party abstain in budget and confidence motions in the Dáil.
But by last month, it had become obvious the Government could no longer continue even with the confidence-and-supply deal.
Over the weekend, as he prepared the ground for Tuesday’s announcement, Varadkar said the tightening Dáil numbers meant the circumstances had changed since he had previously maintained he wanted the election to be held in May 2020.
Last month’s Dáil motion of no confidence in Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy was defeated by the Government by 56 votes to 53, thanks to the support of three Opposition Independents who wanted to avoid a pre-Christmas election: Michael Lowry, Denis Naughten and Noel Grealish.
Yet, even though the Government survived, the Murphy vote will be seen as the clarifying point that signalled the Varadkar administration had come to an end.
Former Fine Gael TD Dara Murphy, who was embroiled in controversy over his Dáil attendance and expenses, resigned after the vote.
It reduced the Government’s total strength to 53 out of a total of 158 TDs. In contrast, 59 TDs voted for Kenny as taoiseach at the successful third attempt on May 6th, 2016. Fine Gael then had 50 seats, but lost Frances Fitzgerald, who was elected to the European Parliament; Peter Fitzpatrick, who resigned the party whip; then Dara Murphy in the intervening period.
Naughten was Minister for Communications but resigned from Government in October 2018 and Clare Independent TD Michael Harty, who voted for Kenny as taoiseach and supported the Government at times in its early stages, increasingly voted with the Opposition.
Along with Fitzgerald, three other ex-TDs were elected to the European Parliament last May, and the resulting byelections returned two Fianna Fáil TDs as well as one each for Sinn Féin and the Green Party. The byelections in themselves did not weaken the Government’s Dáil position, given Fianna Fáil’s policy of abstention.
Senior Fine Gael figures have insisted they wanted a summer election to allow Varadkar campaign in the sun, yet the Taoiseach made the most of the hand available to him
Thomas Pringle, the Donegal TD who was absent for the Murphy no-confidence vote, was unlikely to miss another motion against Minister for Health Simon Harris. Fianna Fáil’s John McGuinness said he would no longer abstain on such motions, a point Varadkar made to Micheál Martin in their ultimately failed efforts to agree an election date.
The past week saw the rural Independent group of deputies confirm they intended to table a no-confidence motion in Harris in early February, and the numbers were certain to be, in Varadkar’s words, “precarious”.
It became obvious he had to call an election on his own terms or be brought down in a confidence vote.
The Taoiseach began preparing the ground for the February 8th election after the Murphy vote.
He began saying the election would be held at the “right time for the country”, instead of his previous position that he wanted a May 2020 poll, and asked Martin to nominate some Fianna Fáil TDs to support the Government to make up for McGuinness breaking with the confidence-and-supply deal, a politically impossible ask.
Senior Fine Gael figures have always insisted they wanted a summer election to allow Varadkar campaign in the sun, yet the Taoiseach yesterday made the most of the hand available to him.
With Britain leaving the EU a week before polling day, he sought to frame the campaign around what he has called his Government’s “magnum opus”.
Having resisted pressure from within his party on a number of occasions to go to the country during previous gaps in the tortured Brexit process, Varadkar said a “window of opportunity” had opened to “have a new government in place before the next European Council meeting in March with a strong mandate” for the negotiations on the future trade agreement between the EU and UK.
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