Expect more bitter Dáil rows like Varadkar and Doherty, says politics professor

The bitter and personal Dáil exchange between Leo Varadkar and Pearse Doherty last week grabbed plenty of headlines and similar rows are likely in the immediate future, according to a politics professor.
Expect more bitter Dáil rows like Varadkar and Doherty, says politics professor

James Cox

The bitter and personal Dáil exchange between Leo Varadkar and Pearse Doherty last week grabbed plenty of headlines and similar rows are likely in the immediate future, according to a politics professor.

The debate started last week during leaders' questions, when Sinn Féin's finance spokesperson accused the Tánaiste of being "out of touch" when it comes to the cost of living crisis.

He said Mr Varadkar should be “a bit more humble” in his response given that the DPP is considering allegations against him under the Corruption Act.

Mr Varadkar accused Mr Doherty of hurling another “cheap shot”.  He subsequently brought up a previous incident involving Mr Doherty.

“It says a lot about you, and the nature and the character of kind of person you are, and it’s particularly strange coming from you because you were prosecuted,” Mr Varadkar said.

“You abused, mistreated An Garda Síochána. For that you were prosecuted, you were found guilty.

“Yes, you got away without a conviction because of your age at the time. But you were actually prosecuted, you were arrested. That’s what happened to you.

“In your party there are a huge number of convicted criminals in your party and in your wider republican family, whether that is tax dodgers like Slab Murphy, a good republican, according to Mary Lou McDonald, a good republican, a tax dodger.

“People who were convicted for murder. We know what your party’s attitude is to rape and paedophiles and what you’ve done in relation to that.

“So your cheap shots say a lot more about you than they do about me.”

While Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald have been involved in plenty of Dáil rows, the nature of this one surprised a lot of people.

DCU professor and political commentator Gary Murphy told BreakingNews.ie that we should expect more testy Dáil exchanges between Sinn Féin and the coalition parties.

He feels Fine Gael would like to portray the next general election as a "kind of great struggle" between them and Sinn Féin.

"I think Fine Gael would like to frame the next election as one between them as purveyors of political centrism and Sinn Féin as radicals, and the rest not being worth voting for," he said.

While the clash between Mr Varadkar and Mr Doherty was unusual given its personal nature, Prof Murphy pointed out that the Dáil has seen plenty of similar arguments in the past.

While Sinn Féin have had a lot of success in pointing out the Government's failures, he predicted replies like Mr Varadkar's will become more common.

"I would just qualify the whole debate by saying that there’s nothing unusual about rancorous exchanges in the Dáil, certainly the spat was very bitter, and I think Doherty got a bit of a shock when Varadkar produced that haymaker.

"I think Sinn Féin will have to accept more of this stuff will be thrown at them, they’re well able to do it themselves."

He said social media has exacerbated arguments in the Dáil, potentially making them "more aggravated".

"For years the Dáil has been full of rancorous debate. In one way I think social media has exacerbated it, there are clips posted within minutes online on Twitter, in the old days there was no TV even in the Dáil. Maybe social media has contributed to the exchanges being as aggravated as they are now.

"I think we can expect more of it, I don’t think the exchanges will become any more civilised over the next couple of years."

He added: "In one way Sinn Féin want to frame it as them being the ones with solutions to these terrible crises and Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael particularly, representing an old-fashioned elite that is not attuned with the public, that’s the way they would like to frame the next election.

"That will continue over the next two years, if it happens when planned, but they like to frame it as them being the radicals, in a good way, who have solutions and Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael being part of the tired elite that have been in power since the foundation of this State and have not done a very good job.

"It garnered more attention. The social media accounts of both parties were out straight away with clips of Doherty saying to Varakdar you should be more humble, especially when you have this investigation, and then you get the haymaker back where Varadkar mentioned the incident involving the Garda."

He pointed out that the exchange between Mr Varadkar and Mr Doherty is just the latest in a history full of bitter Dáil debates.

"Fianna Fáil were forever throwing charges at Fine Gael in the De Valera age of being fascists who supported the execution of fellow Irishmen during Civil War and Fine Gael were accusing Fianna Fáil of trying to subvert the State, something Fianna Fáil have accused Sinn Féin of. Goebbels was a name thrown around the Dáil for years.

"The rancorous nature of the Dáil has been exemplified by McDonald and Martin certainly, she accuses him of being part of a sort of posh elite, and he hits back by saying she went to a private school while he was brought up in a council estate and so on.

"However, we have had bitter debates in the Dáil since the foundation of this State, even as far back as the 20s and 30s all sorts of things were thrown across the floor of the house in relation to the Civil War.

"As Haughey’s biographer I can tell you the stuff he had to listen to, all sorts of names thrown at him, and of course he threw a few back himself, so I don’t think there’s anything wildly new about this.

"I think what’s new about it is the reference to an investigation where the gardaí are involved, that’s a bit unusual, but beyond that there’s not a huge change in what’s been happening since the foundation of the State.

"I think social media is important as it amplifies everything. I was scrolling through Twitter when I first saw the clips, one from the Fine Gael account and one from the Sinn Féin account, both putting forward the best clips of their representatives in action so to speak.

"I do think social media has probably magnified what I would see as an age-old problem of general bitterness and acrimony in the Dáil."

Mary Lou McDonald and Micheál Martin also regularly engage in rows in the Dáil.

For a more recent example, he pointed to a debate in 2010 following the economic crash.

"Eamon Gilmore accused Brian Cowen of economic treason, a very serious charge in the word treason. Cowen was very upset about it, but Gilmore stood over it and that was a hugely bitter debate."

In the aftermath of the row between Mr Varadkar and Mr Doherty, the Irish Independent published a story on a "secret dossier" Fine Gael had planned for attacks on Sinn Féin.

Some TDs in the party expressed surprise at the claim, and Prof Murphy pointed out that information on rival parties and political opponents is nothing new.

"I can tell you this, for decades political parties have been gathering dossiers on their opponents, there’s nothing terribly new in that. Some of it labelling Sinn Féin as the Irish equivalent to Donald Trump was a bit over the top.

"Back to Haughey, Fine Gael in the 80s had a huge dossier on him and what his weaknesses were, and how they could be exploited in general elections, and Fianna Fáil had similar stuff on Garret FitzGerald, while this wouldn’t be well known to the younger generation, there’s nothing terribly new about political parties having dossiers on their opponents and what they might use in an election campaign or in this perpetual campaign that we’re in now."

Sinn Féin will be expecting more attacks from Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, and Prof Murphy thinks it will be a tactic from both parties looking towards the next general election, currently scheduled for 2025.

"I did think Doherty looked a bit stony-faced when Varadkar fired back at him, it probably came as a surprise to Sinn Féin, and they may have seen it as a low blow.

"I read that Fine Gael backbenchers were delighted with it, that will give testament to the idea that we’ll be seeing more of this rather than less.

"It also gives the troops a bit of a boost. Being in power with the cost of living crisis and the malaise with housing and health, the emergency departments are shocking, in these situations the grassroots need every now and again to get a bit of a boost. Fine Gael will like to see him coming out swinging, and I think we’ll see more of this rather than less.

"For the last couple of months there’s been a sharper edge to Dáil debates and McDonald is well able to throw fire, and she can expect plenty of it back, I thought the last one where Martin said he was the one from humble roots, and pointed to her private education... is a sign of more things to come."

While there has been some speculation about whether the current Government will last until 2025, Prof Murphy feels Sinn Féin's popularity in opinion polls will mean the coalition sticks together until then.

He pointed out that their ratings, around 37 per cent, could see them win up to 70 seats, meaning they may only need one left-leaning party as partners to form a government.

Fine Gael have probably taken a view that they’re not going to be punchbags for Sinn Féin hitting them with all sorts of accusations that they’re posh boys who don’t care.

This means the current tactics, of Sinn Féin attacks on the Government, and firm responses, will further contribute to a continuation of bitter Dáil exchanges.

"I do get a feeling that there’s a general sense among a lot of neutral or floating voters that it’s time to give somebody else a chance, and that will be very difficult for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to overcome in the next couple of years.

"Fine Gael have probably taken a view that they’re not going to be punchbags for Sinn Féin hitting them with all sorts of accusations that they’re posh boys who don’t care, don’t care about the poor and disadvantaged.

"I think they’ve taken a decision to hit back and fight fire with fire, but I don’t expect the danger of putting people off will soften either of their approaches."

He added: "It’s unclear how this government will end, will one party pull the plug quicker than expected, or will it go the full five years? I’ve seen some speculation that an election will come sooner than later, but the poll numbers would tend to suggest that the Government will not want an election any time soon, and that’s what I would expect.

"The polls are very good for Sinn Féin, and you’d expect them to win, 37 per cent would put you in 70-seat territory. That would mean they might only have to coalesce with a party like the Social Democrats, I couldn’t see People Before Profit in government, but if Sinn Féin get 37 per cent and over 70 seats it wouldn’t be a million miles away from an overall majority. It’s a long way out, that’s just speculation, but their poll numbers have been so good for so long I wouldn’t expect them to significantly drop any time soon.

"They will keep up the pressure on the Government, so I don’t expect any change in tactics from them."

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