Greens' departure creates election uncertainty and Constitutional conundrum

The Green Party salvaged some political standing on Thursday in forcing Brian Cowen to backtrack on a proposed Cabinet reshuffle and also set a date of 11 March for the general election. But by resigning from government this afternoon but stating their intention to support the Finance Bill from opposition benches, the Greens have cast further uncertainty on the date for an election. They also place the Dail in a Constitutional quandary and may have nullified whatever modest gains they made politically. By Malachy Browne

This afternoon's announcement to resign from government followed a long meeting of senior Green Party members earlier today to discuss the party position following the resignation of Brian Cowen as president and leader of Fianna Fail yesterday. John Gormley and Eamon Ryan announced the resignation of their ministerial posts bringing the number of ministers to a constitutional minimum of seven. However, the party will support the passing into law of the Finance Bill from Opposition benches.

In the last 24 hours, Eamon Ryan spoke with Opposition parties to agree a position that would allow this before the Dail is dissolved. Both the Labour Party and Fine Gael had threatened to table motions of no confidence in the government this week. If passed, this would force Brian Cowen, who remains as Taoiseach, to dissolve the Dail. However, both parties this morning offered to suspend these motions if Brian Cowen guarantees the passing of the Finance Bill by next Friday evening, 28 January. It is understood that the parties agreed to a short election campaign which would see an election on 18 February.

Labour and Fine Gael understood this to have been agreed with the Green Party. But John Gormley cast this into doubt when questioned about the feasibility of passing the Finance Bill within five days. Mr Gormley said that further discussions would be held on how quickly the Bill could be passed.

Got a minute? Please take this survey for a Politico magazine.

"Fine Gael must understand that there has to be reasonableness about this matter," he said, adding that the Bill could be passed in "truncated format". "It's a question of how quickly it can be done," Mr Gormley said. Eamon Ryan said that if committee amendments were not required, the Bill could be passed in a "very very tight timeframe".

Fine Gael TD for Limerick West, Michael Noonan said that the Bill and amendments could be passed through the Dail and Senate by Friday evening. He said that "it's not so long ago that we had three all night sittings to pass legislation on NAMA."

However, Brian Cowen said today that it would not be possible to pass the Bill by Friday; Brian Lenihan is reported to have indicated that it would take two weeks. The Green Party said "all-party consultation" was required, and that it was up to Fine Gael, Fianna Fail, Labour and the Green Party to discuss in a "civilised" and "collegiate" way what is possible before the Dail returns. Notably, Sinn Fein was not mentioned.

Mr Gormley said that the Opposition "recognises" the argument against dissolving the Dáil before the Finance Bill is passed. However, Labour TD Pat Rabbitte insisted on RTE Radio 1 that "Friday night is the deadline". "If they want to sit on Saturday we can sit on Saturday," he said. Asked if the Labour Party would table the confidence motion, Pat Rabbitte said: "Unless we receive agreement tomorrow from Brian Lenihan."

Referring to international columns describing the political situation in Ireland as a "circus", Pat Rabbitte said: "I don't want another weekend of this sort of uncertainty where we're the subject of jokes and puns internationally. We just have to get on with it."

Delaying the Finance Bill until after the general election was rebuffed by John Gormley and Brian Lenihan. Mr Gormley said the Green Party had a discussion with the Department of Finance on the issue and indicated that it could not be completed after the general election. Fine Gael and Labour had previously indicated that this is possible. Brian Lenihan said that this would push the Finance Bill into April at least. "We don't need just political certainty, we need commercial certainty," Mr Lenihan told Gavan Jennings on RTE. "I don't believe the election timetable would facilitate [delaying the Finance Bill] in any way. It would push into April. We must show that we are able to implement the finance agreement that we have entered [with the EU and IMF]."

Constitutional Quandry

The government exists now only nominally. As Brendan Howlin pointed out on RTE's Lunchtime programme yesterday, the resignation of Brian Cowen as party leader, and now the departure of the Green Party from government creates a Constitutional conundrum, in theory at least. Article 28.10 of the Constitution states:

"The Taoiseach shall resign from office upon his ceasing to retain the support of a majority in Dáil Éireann unless on his advice the President dissolves Dáil Éireann and on the reassembly of Dáil Éireann after the dissolution the Taoiseach secures the support of a majority in Dáil Éireann."

Given the slim government majority, the Green Party's resignation today clearly strips Taoiseach Brian Cowen of "support of a majority in Dail Eireann".

Challenged on the issue at the press conference today, John Gormley said: "If this arrangement is for very short space of time, I don't think there are constitutional issues."

Asked about a date for the election, Mr Gormley said: "Dáil dissolution is an issue for Taoiseach; I can't give you dates."

Knives Out

With the general election imminent political points scoring begun. Dublin South Central TD for Fianna Fail, Michael Mulcahy told RTE News: "[The Green Party] found the going a bit tough... the pressure finally got to them."

Asked to reflect on coalition with the Green Party, Brian Lenihan said: "The Green Party were (sic) very loyal to the financial decisions. They had an agenda of their own; there is no doubt that the Climate Bill caused great difficulty throughout rural Ireland with Fianna Fail supporters.

"I was disappointed that on the morning [after the EU-IMF bailout] when the bond spreads began to improve that they decided to turn the government into a temporary government.... Having advertised the fact that they wanted to leave the government [in December 2010], it was very difficult to keep them there."

John Gormley said: ""The way bailout was communicated left people feeling betrayed. We felt we had to stay in government to pass the budget." He said that they communicated their decision today to the Taoiseach and the other ministers "There is quite a bit of fragmentation within Fianna Fail," he said.

Limerick East TD for FIanna Fail, Willie O'Dea described the Green Party as "fairly difficult colleagues". "They seemed to have to consult with a whole lot of different people. You never knew where you are [with them]."

O'Dea criticized the prolific use of social media by some Green Party members. "I think the use of Twitter to say that they were coerced into certain decisions was a negation of collective cabinet responsibility," he said.

O'Dea concurred with Brian Lenihan that the Greens supported "stringent financial measures", but he said that speaking clandestinely to Fine Gael in the recent hours demonstrated that the party is "very anxious to get out of government at the earliest possible opportunity and have an election."