In the days following Leo Varadkar’s address to the Nation on St Patrick’s Day, there was a flurry of chatter online as journalists, politicos and those outside the bubble shared their thoughts and reactions. Most of the coverage was undoubtedly positive, much of the public seemingly reassured that the Government and the Taoiseach are making the correct decisions in the national interest. Some were appreciative of the empathy conveyed through their television screens and for many, there was a feeling that some much-needed stability had been brought into the discourse. Naturally, some of the coverage was also critical, including among Sinn Féin representatives and a video here in Gript by Tim Jackson, which argued that the Taoiseach’s address was a vacuous exercise in self-promotion, with an ulterior motive. All subjective, I suppose.
However, amongst all of the hot-takes and headlines the content of one article in particular lingered in my mind. Written in this publication and titled ‘Varadkar: Coronavirus bill will be enormous’, John McGuirk argued that although Leo’s speech was perhaps his finest moment, a serious problem simmers beneath the surface in that the current Government which is implementing the emergency measures, lacks democratic legitimacy and a mandate to govern.
Of course, John is right to question authority as everyone should in a democratic free-thinking society, “If then the people promises simply to obey (it) loses what makes it a people.” as Rousseau famously said. However, it’s also right and extremely important – particularly as we undergo this unprecedented national crisis – that when questions arise around the Government’s mandate and the legitimacy of it’s actions, there is some perspective and objectivity.
In light of the recent General Election it is easy to query what mandate the current Government has, and there’s absolutely no doubt that it has been weakened by the result of that election and Fine Gael’s dismal showing.. This is the reason why Leo Varadkar has been so adamant that Fine Gael should seek to occupy the opposition benches, against the wishes of a small but prominent handful of his senior Minister’s, whose eyes seem firmly fixed on the short-sighted Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil coalition from hell. The sort of arrangement so ghastly it harks back to the Goosebumps novels you may have read as a child.
However, whatever mandate the current Government does have far exceeds the mandate that anybody else has. Possession is nine-tenths of the law and as the Government currently in office they have the only mandate that’s out there. Let’s not forget that the reason we’re in this position is a result of the inability of Sinn Féin and the other left-wing parties who together hold a majority of seats in the Dáil to come together and form the majority government they promised their voters, and subsequently, Micheál Martin’s insistence on prioritising his personal antipathy toward Sinn Féin over Fianna Fáil’s distant yet kindred relationship, culturally and policy-wise, with them.
McGuirk says that “the constitution is very clear that ministers remain in office until a new Government is elected”. However, the Constitution actually goes much further than that. Article 28.11.2 makes it clear that “the Taoiseach and the other members of the Government shall continue to carry on their duties until their successors shall have been appointed”. The wording is crucially important here: “carry out their duties” not just “remain in office”. This is a positive mandate. A Constitutional instruction to continue as they would have done before the election.
In 1996, the Constitution Review Group chaired by T.K. Whitaker commented that a Government which continues in office in this way should “carry on the essential business of the State strictly on a care and good management basis not deviating from the status quo in relation to policy in any significant way”. The current Government has certainly deviated beyond the “status quo” in recent days, and this would potentially create a serious problem, which McGuirk notes. However, he ignores entirely the cross-party support that exists for these policies. The measures put forward by the Government to address the crisis were voted on and approved by the Dáil and the Seanad this week, and the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Bill 2020 was passed unanimously by both Houses. This gives a direct and unquestionable democratic legitimacy to the actions of the Government in recent days, and as long as this cross-party unanimity throughout the Covid-19 crisis continues, for the near-term future.
McGuirk then goes on correctly, in my opinion, to question how the current Dáil can continue, given that the fiscal realities have changed dramatically. I agree, there should be an election after the Covid-19 crisis has been successfully navigated, so that the Irish people can choose the Government they require to lead the country through it’s aftermath, one which will be dominated by global economic challenges which are storming toward us from just beyond the horizon. However, returning to the question of mandates, it must be noted that both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil were very careful throughout the previous election campaign to caveat their political and spending promises in terms which stated that if the economic realities faced at the time changed due to Brexit, or any other event that would have a severe impact on this country, then the spending plans would have to change as well.
So, the good readers of Gript can rest assured, the Government – love them or loath them – has a mandate to continue to govern the country until the circumstances change, and to take the measures it deems necessary on a “care and good management basis” as this crisis continues, with the support of all political parties. There is not going to be a “long-term legitimacy problem”. The reality is that there is no prospect of the current arrangement going on long-term. It will eventually be brought to an end by some kind of coalition deal, confidence and supply, or by a new election. The sooner that day comes, and we’re all through the other side of this turbulent and dangerous period, the better – for all of us.
Stephen Shine is a member of Fine Gael.