From top: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tanaiste/Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney at Dublin Castle for the Global irewland conference; Bryan Wall
One of the fundamental aspects of democracy is the ability to pass laws and legislation for the greater good with support from the majority of people.
This should be self-evident in any democratic society.
I say should be because Fine Gael seems to think otherwise.
It seems to think that it, and it alone, is the arbiter of what constitutes democracy, what the greater good is, and who it applies to. Of course, then, this raises questions about the extent of our own democracy and its inherent limits.
So a national broadband plan that will enrich a select few is for the greater good. On the other hand, a piece of legislation which would outlaw the extraction of new fossil fuels in Ireland is to be blocked given its apparent lack of benefit for wider society.
The treatment of the Climate Emergency Bill by Leo Varadkar and company is not unique. Far from it. Perhaps it’s seen as leftist posturing.
Or maybe even seen as a threat. But it is yet another bill that the government is blocking via an outdated and undemocratic piece of legislation: The money message.
This allows for the government to block any bill from progressing that will have an effect on the state’s coffers. Under Article 17.2 of the constitution, no vote, resolution, or law can be passed if it will touch the state’s revenues.
Instead, Article 17.2 states that any of the above will first have to be “recommended to Dáil Éireann by a message from the Government signed by the Taoiseach” before they could be passed.
In a 2017 piece for the Irish Times, Kieran Coughlan pointed out that under normal circumstances the use of a money message to block bills in the Dáil would be unusual.
This is because the normal circumstances would consist of a majority government that could simply vote down everything it didn’t like. But Fine Gael is a minority government.
As Coughlan intimated, opposition bills have a real chance of getting passed as a result. And this, he said, “has alarmed the Government (and no doubt the permanent Government)”.
Skip forward to today. As it currently stands the government is blocking 55 bills from progressing via a money message.
This is an obscene figure. No matter how the government wants to try and spin it, there is simply no excuse for this level of intransigence.
Take the Climate Emergency Bill as an example. The bill, as mentioned, would outlaw any new exploitation of fossil fuels in Ireland.
On the one hand the government claims to care about the environment and published its Climate Action Plan. Yet it blocks the Climate Emergency Bill despite its obvious importance. Permission has been granted for a Chinese oil company and Exxon to begin drilling off the coast of Kerry.
And one of Leo Varadkar’s advisors has been in regular contact with a representative of the fossil fuel lobby.
It has been known for years now that the majority of the newly discovered fossil fuel deposits must stay in the ground if we are to have any hope of alleviating the ongoing climate catastrophe.
No matter. Someone has to make a profit. And it might as well be friends of the government that do.
And there’s the Occupied Territories Bill. Proposed by Senator Frances Black, it would ban trade with illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Golan Heights.
The bill adheres to international law which the Irish government presumably respects. Yet it has stated its opposition to the bill. And it’s expected to block it via a money message.
As Ciaran Tierney has revealed, the government has come under immense pressure from beyond Ireland to block the bill.
Politicians in the US have put pressure on their Irish counterparts about the bill. They called the bill “ill-conceived”. And referencing the role of US corporations in the Irish economy, they said the “stakes for Ireland are high”.
The government has also been directly lobbied by a major Israeli government agency. The chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel, Isaac Herzog, wrote to Simon Coveney in January asking him to block the bill.
Herzog called the bill “unfair and unjust”. He also claimed that if the bill is passed it would encourage:
a violent turn by extremists who would interpret it as an official encouragement to more hostility, and indeed more hostilities.
He closed his letter by telling Coveney:
I am offering my help to try and prevent it. We need to join efforts to block this Bill.
All of the above speaks to a wider agenda. The government will do everything it can to ensure that its own interests are looked after first at the expense of everyone else. That much is clear.
But there’s also the interests of the government’s supporters and allies that must also be taken care of.
No Fine Gael government is going to vote for proposals that would protect renters to the extent that is needed. It’s not going to anger the fossil fuel lobby by banning new oil wells and coal mines.
And it’s not going to enrage the Israeli government, especially when it’s vying for a seat on the UN security council.
It’s us who’ll pay for all of this, literally and figuratively. Varadkar and his government have done nothing but show contempt for ordinary people.
For them, democracy is a tool to get elected. Its usefulness stops once that has been achieved. Fine Gael isn’t particularly distinctive in this regard.
But it’s the party that we all have to deal with at this point in time. And it’s the party that’s doing its best to show its contempt for what little democracy we have and ensuring that its own interests and motives take precedence.
Democracy extends only as far as Fine Gael allows it. An alternative is unthinkable. Because after all, that might mean allowing some real democracy to take root and flourish.