The Taoiseach knew he had it in the bag.
Winning the vote was a mere face-saving exercise. Even if his Government was defeated, he couldn’t lose.
Sinn Féin’s motion to extend the eviction ban was always going to fail. “It’s not going to pass, and even if it did, it would have no practical effect – and you know that,” Leo Varadkar told Mary Lou McDonald.
They could win by a country mile and it wouldn’t make a jot of difference because the result is not legally binding.
Furthermore, as he later told Mick Barry, it’s no skin off his nose if a few Coalition TDs decide to jump ship rather than vote to end the moratorium.
[ Green Party’s Neasa Hourigan suspended from parliamentary party for 15 months ]
[ Eviction ban vote shows why Government is more stable than it may appear ]
“Deputy, you may have forgotten this,” he modestly reminded the People Before Profit TD, “but I led a minority government for three years – the last one – and it lasted a lot longer than anyone thought it would.”
Not that any of this mattered, because as far as Leo was concerned the Government would prevail by a “clear margin”.
He was right. On Wednesday evening, the margin in the Government’s favour was on the handy side of comfortable. There were no defections apart from the Greens’ Neasa Hourigan, who had signalled her intentions days ago.
I will take care of and ‘sleep’ many people tonight, as will other people like me, but others in this House will only be dreaming of what development they will object to next in their constituencies— Michael Healy-Rae
Visions of Fine Gael’s Joe Carey being shunted from his convalescent bed and stretchered into the chamber for dramatic effect to shore up the Government vote never came to pass.
Helen McEntee didn’t have to break her maternity leave and rush to the chamber with babe in arms, saving the Coalition from humiliation.
After almost an hour of voting, the Government got its way. The temporary ban, initiated to allow the Government some breathing space to figure out how to cope once it was reimposed, will be gone by April 1st, with Leo, Micheál and Eamon hoping they won’t end up looking like fools in the aftermath.
And Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Green Party backbenchers will be holding their breath while discovering that nine days is a long time in politics, hoping the Opposition’s dire predictions do not come to pass once evictions resume.
Almost no Dáil drama in the end after the Ceann Comhairle brought the convoluted series of votes – including a full roll-call – to a conclusion by declaring that “the amendment to the amendment is agreed to and the question now to be considered is that the Sinn Féin motion, as amended by the Government amended, also amended, to be agreed to”.
[ Eviction ban: Five key concessions made by Coalition to secure Independent support ]
But there was one major shock when it emerged that Danny Healy-Rae had voted with the Government, while his brother Michael Healy-Rae had voted against.
The Rural Independent TDs from the Kerry enclave of Kilgarvan are men of property. They both had strong views on the ban while decrying what they saw as party politics at play from all the main parties.
On Tuesday, Michael took aim at detractors “who would stand here and criticise and demonise people like me for owning property. I will take care of and ‘sleep’ many people tonight, as will other people like me, but others in this House will only be dreaming of what development they will object to next in their constituencies.”
The schism in the Healy-Rae camp did not go unnoticed. What was going on? Did Danny strike a deal with the Government in return for his vote?
Sinn Féin’s Chris Andrews seemed to think so. After the final result, he looked down from the back row of the chamber to Danny’s seat in the front and whooped “There must be a lot of potholes in Kenmare!”
What price for a vote? Labour’s Ged Nash demanded to know how much the support from some members of the Regional Independent group was going to cost the taxpayer. Minutes after lending his vote to Leo, Sean Canney was out on the plinth declaring he would make sure that the Government would deliver.
The next election is drawing closer to us now and this decision will not be forgiven. And, I suspect, will not be forgotten either— Mick Barry
The voters of East Galway can suspect some proud announcements from Sean in future constituency bulletins.
So was it really all a waste of time, as the Taoiseach implied? The Opposition won’t think so as it waits for the latest housing plan to yield dividends for them and trouble for Government. Markers have been laid down for the future.
As Mick Barry saw it, with his usual flair for understatement, the decision to lift the eviction ban is up there in the pantheon of political infamy along with docking a shilling off the old-age pension 100 years ago and the decision to impose VAT on children’s shoes 40 years ago.
“The next election is drawing closer to us now and this decision will not be forgiven. And, I suspect, will not be forgotten either,” he quivered.
[ Heated scenes and disappearing votes are just the start of Coalition’s spring-time woes ]
The efforts of governments past was not forgotten either on Wednesday, when Social Democrat leader Holly Cairns took the Taoiseach on a somewhat unpleasant trip down memory lane.
If only everybody could live on Memory Lane.
You know it – opposite Overpromise Row, around the corner from Amnesia Avenue and Resignation Way.
It’s a place for Can Do people. The air is perfumed with promises – and nobody makes fancy announcements they cannot fulfil.
Taoiseach, when do you think it all began to go wrong? When did your housing policy begin to unravel?— Holly Cairns
There are green spaces and playgrounds for the children. Brochures and brochures of them. Housing is plentiful with a pleasing mix of public and private dwellings. Lot of decent rental properties too.
Memory Lane is the place to be.
It’ll be nice when it’s finished.
During Leaders’ Questions, Holly Cairns took the Taoiseach on a short guided tour of this endless road, pointing out some annual landmarks along the way.
Because up close, Memory Lane is a sorry mess of bad planning, broken pledges, missed deadlines and unfinished business. Action plans go there to die and former ministers grow old and bitter in the shadows. Vultures lurk in the trees. Management companies come and go.
Leo Varadkar could have done without being reminded of this by the leader of the Social Democrats, who clearly has a clever script adviser in her corner.
She began with a question. “Taoiseach, when do you think it all began to go wrong? When did your housing policy begin to unravel?”
Where to begin?
Holly jumped in at 2014, when Fine Gael first promised to tackle the housing crisis. Was it then he realised all was not well?
Every year, right through to 2023, she talked him through a decade of Fine Gael inspired initiatives and pronouncements. They haven’t aged well. And she set them against the year-on-year reality.
As in: Was it 2016, when Fine Gael promised to end the use of hotels to house homeless people within one year?
Or: 2019, when a five-year-old homeless boy was pictured eating his dinner off a piece of cardboard on the street?
[ The Irish Times view on the eviction ban debate: the Government walks into trouble ]
Rounding off with: “Was it this year – this moment – when homeless figures reached record highs, but the Government decided to lift the eviction ban and make thousands of people homeless?”
If she wanted to talk about years, he would talk about years too. “Allow me to mention three: 2022, 2023, 1975 and 2007.”
Holly stifled a giggle.
Meanwhile, Marc MacSharry dismissed the entire proceedings as a charade.
“Taoiseach, I listened to you earlier outline the total superficiality of private members’ motions, like many of the activities of this House,” he boomed. People are being misled by all the political parties, in cahoots with the media, to believe that the will of the chamber means something, whereas in reality, the Government will do what it wants, whether it is defeated or not.”
Will the Government do something to address this “abject democratic deficit”?