Could the row over the Finance ministry prove costly for the coalition?
This morning, for the first time since February 2020 when Covid-19 hit Ireland with a bang, Cabinet ministers will gather for their weekly meeting in Government Buildings.
Since 1922, the room or Council Chamber where they’ll gather has been where successive governments have made all the important decisions about the running of the country.
It has fallen silent since the pandemic struck, with ministers forced to use Dublin Castle to carry out their affairs.
Made redundant because of social distancing requirements, the return of the Chamber’s use signals the formal ending of the pandemic emergency from an administrative perspective and the return to normalcy — or as close to normal as an unprecedented energy crisis and war in Europe can be.
Ministers will take their pre-assigned seats based on seniority and importance.
It is the order of those seats after the transition of power in December from Micheál Martin to Leo Varadkar, which is beginning to cause tensions between the coalition parties.
Several months ago in an interview with this newspaper, the Public Expenditure Minister, Fianna Fáil’s Michael McGrath, made clear the deal done between the parties would see his party take over in finance when it relinquished the Taoiseach’s office.
What we have seen in recent days is a not too subtle attempt by Fine Gael to fly the notion that Paschal Donohoe needs to remain on as finance minister after the rotation or Ireland will lose out, as he will have to give up his post as president of the Eurogroup of finance ministers.
Leo Varadkar upped the ante last Friday.
“I would be just stating a fact in saying the presidency of the Eurogroup is probably the most important position that any Irish man or woman holds at the moment in the world… I don’t think there’s a country in Europe that wouldn’t like to get that role from us if they could,” he told the Newstalk radio station.
Such comments have caused a clear degree of annoyance with Martin, McGrath, and Fianna Fáil who, in a rare bout of decisiveness, have basically told Varadkar and Fine Gael to take a hike.
McGrath at his party’s think-in on Monday said now is not the time for such discussions when the budget is two weeks away. More pointedly on Varadkar’s comments, he said such matters should be dealt with behind closed doors and not in the media.
Yesterday morning, Martin as Taoiseach doubled down the warning that the cohesion of the coalition depends on the principle of “parity of esteem” being honoured by the two parties.
In lay man’s terms, the deal made in 2020 — that Fianna Fáil would take over in finance — must be honoured.
McGrath then went further by saying there can be no situation whereby anyone other than the finance minister (him) attends the Eurogroup on behalf of Ireland.
Donohoe’s term of office as president is up for renewal in January anyway, but ECB and EU sources have made clear a second term is his if he wants it.
They have described the notion of Ireland wilfully giving away such a prestigious role as “baffling”.
The rising tensions so far out from the transition shows clearly how treacherous the changeover of power potentially is.