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A Government ‘on notice’ as Harris narrowly survives and FF hardens tone

Inside Politics: Brexit talks continue with tentative hopes of breakthrough brokered in middle ground

Good morning,

If your first thought upon opening this digest was "not another Brexit spiel" you may also want to disconnect from all forms of online and print media over the coming days.

The Government last night narrowly won a motion of no confidence in Minister for Health Simon Harris, and while the children's hospital controversy will rumble on, the political lens will shift to focus squarely on Brexit again.

We are now heading into weeks of potential late night sittings in the Dáil which will generate hours of debate about what will happen if there is a no-deal divorce.


There are (at least) two defining moments to come in the short-term: the next series of votes in Westminster on or before next Wednesday, and the publication of the Government’s no-deal omnibus Bill tomorrow.

Before we delve into details about tomorrow and beyond, this is the current state of play.

As Patrick Smyth reports on the front page today, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and British prime minister Theresa May emerged from a meeting in Brussels last night saying that they wanted to speed up their Brexit talks in the face of a tight deadline.

There was still no indication that the withdrawal agreement will be reopened. Not a single EU leader has backed such a proposal.

A statement after last night’s meeting mentioned “alternative arrangements” but as Smyth points out, it would appear that the aim is to find some form legal language on the backstop that will allow UK attorney general Geoffrey Cox go back to the Commons and declare he no longer believes the backstop commitment in the withdrawal agreement is indefinite.

Mr Cox and the Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay will be in Brussels today for further talks with the EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier. There is speculation this morning that Mr Cox will seek an exit mechanism to the backstop. The EU is unlikely to budge from its position that the backstop must not be time-limited, and must not be subject to a unilateral exit clause. There are tentative hopes of a breakthrough brokered in the middle ground, but nothing solid.

Back home, tomorrow will be an important day in our planning for a potential no-deal crash-out.

Opposition politicians will be watching the legislative blockbuster closely to see what exact contingencies are being put in place across healthcare, business, transport and education amongst other areas.

The Government is hoping to have the Bill pass all stages of the Houses of the Oireachtas by March 15th, before it is then signed into law by President Michael D Higgins on or before March 29th.

However, if the Seanad makes amendments to the legislation, it will have to go back to the Dáil on the 26th.

This was confirmed in the Oireachtas social protection committee yesterday. So time is very tight.

Once that legislation is published, it is onwards to Egypt this weekend for Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

May will also attend, and it has been reported that she will, from the sidelines, push for changes to the current deal.

The feeling, however, is that there will be no big Brexit moment in Sharm El Sheikh.

One of the biggest moments, arguably, will be those scheduled votes next week.

If May has nothing new to bring to parliament at this stage, she brings us all perilously close to falling into a disastrous hard Brexit.

No progress by the 27th may also see a spate of resignations, but most likely it would make an extension to article 50 a more tangible reality than it has ever been before.

A Government ‘on notice’

There is another Brexit message for the Government to consider, communicated loud and clear from the Opposition benches last night: once the mess across the water is resolved, all bets are off.

It's not a fresh revelation, Fianna Fáil TDs have been muttering for weeks about keeping the Government afloat in the "national interest".

But what is striking is the sudden hardening in tone and language amongst both rebel and frontbench TDs.

Harris last night scraped through to survive the Sinn Féin motion of no confidence by 58 votes to 53 with 37 abstentions.

Earlier in the day he had tweeted some of his achievements alongside the phrase “bring it on”.

Fianna Fail’s Lisa Chambers wasted no time in issuing a response.

“Stop with the self congratulation and using the Eighth referendum as a personal win. Be under no illusion, if it were not for Brexit you’d be gone. Less patting yourself on the back and get on with your job. 87k backlog in CervicalCheck and NCH costs out of control,” she wrote on online.

Unsurprisingly, John McGuinness had a thing or two to say as well.

“This motion of no confidence in the Minister should be a notice of no confidence in the Government itself.

“There are those of us in this party, on this side of the House, and indeed within the party ranks and in the general public, who want us to pull the plug. I no longer know why we support the Government or why we sit on our hands and allow it to function. Both the public and the majority of the House have had enough of the Government and, therefore, it should go.”

The sentiments are important as the party faces into its Ardfheis in Citywest this weekend.

It is an opportunity for the grassroots to have their voice heard, but with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil still hovering close to each other in the opinion polls, it will be interesting to see if the appetite is truly there to finally make a break for it.

Best Reads

Patsy McGarry reports on the story of Dublin's "most notorious child sexual abuser".

Miriam Lord has all the details about that motion of no confidence in Harris.

And Marie O'Halloran has the full news report on the same issue here.

Simon Carswell and Joe Brennan report that Minister of State for European Affairs Helen McEntee believes Brexit could be delayed for three months if it broke the deadlock.

Conor Lally, Conor Gallagher and Harry McGee have a piece on how Garda and Gsoc will investigate the collapse of the trial of Patrick Hutch for the Regency Hotel murder of David Byrne.


The Minister for Culture Josepha Madigan will discuss questions on her brief at 10.30am.

Leaders’ Questions at noon.

Questions on promised legislation will take place at 12.32pm.

The Government’s Aircraft Noise Regulation Bill will come before the Dáil at 1.02pm.

The anti ticket touting Bill being championed by Noel Rock and Stephen Donnelly is due to go through second stage at 3.25pm.

Topical issues will be taken at 5.15pm.

The Dáil will adjourn at 8.03pm.

No business is scheduled

Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty will update the social protection committee at 9am on a convention to ensure that those in the UK and Ireland receiving welfare and pension payments cross-Border can continue to do so in the event of a no-deal Brexit and after Brexit.

The Public Accounts Committee will also meet at 9am to discuss the governance of education training boards.

At 2.45pm Tánaiste Simon Coveney will attend the Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement to provide an update to members on the agreement.