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Taoiseach Mr Varadkar is currently the country’s leader in a caretaker capacity after his Fine Gael party’s disappointing showing in February’s general election. However, with talks aimed at forming a new coalition government including Fianna Fail and the Greens dragging on, Mr Varadkar has told colleagues he was not prepared to enter into a new Government “at all costs”. He stressed any deal needed fiscal responsibility at its heart.
Mr Varadkar’s remarks, made during a video conference meeting of the party’s parliamentary party yesterday, raise the prospect of a power vacuum at a time of enormous uncertainty with the country reeling from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Specifically, there are concerns over sections of emergency anti-terrorist and anti-crime gang legislation, which will expire if a new Government is not formed by June 30.
The problem arises because the Offences against the State Act and the Criminal Justice Amendment Act 2009 must be renewed each year via a motion of both the Dail – Ireland’s parliament – and the Seanad, an upper house similar to the House of Lords.
However, because just 49 members of the 60-seat Seanad have been elected, with 11 due to be appointed by the incoming Taoiseach – whoever it is – the assembly will not come into session until a new Government is in force, creating a Catch-22 situation.
If nothing has happened by the end of the month, non-jury trials for certain offences relating to paramilitary and gang crimes, including directing the activities of a criminal organisation or training in firearms, will not be possible.
Extra powers granted to Irish police, or gardai, allowing them make inferences from an accused person’s silence will also lapse.
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During the meeting, Mr Varadkar was pressed on the issue by Senator Sean Kyne, a former Government Chief Whip who was appointed to his current role in February, the Irish Times reported.
Mr Varadkar replied by insisting efforts were ongoing to ensure the legislation did not expire, including attempts to secure cross-party backing for the appointing of 11 senators in order that the Seanad could be reconvened.
Both Mr Varadkar and his deputy, Simon Coveney, also stressed they would only sign up for a Government reflecting Fine Gael values which was committed to cutting Ireland’s budget deficit.
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It won’t be government at all costs
Fine Gael wanted sustainable “economic growth” under the next government, stressing the need to cut public spending, especially if markets changed borrowing rates.
He also told TDs: “It won’t be government at all costs.”
If Fianna Fail and the Greens were not able to accept the need to reduce the national debt, “it is better we don’t go into government now”, he added.
Sinn Fein, which emerged from February 8’s general election with 37 seats, is not involved in the ongoing coalition talks, having been effectively frozen out by the two major parties.
In reference to controversial plans to increase the age at which people qualify for a state pension, Sinn Fein TD David Cullinane tweeted: “So @FineGael more interested in the markets then ending mandatory retirement and giving people the choice to retire at 65.”
“The ‘markets’ needs are more important than the needs of essential construction workers he wants to work until they are 68. Tory politics laid bare.”
Mr Varadkar, 41, has been Ireland’s leader since June 2017.
After his party’s disappointing election result, on February he offered his resignation to Michael Higgins, who as President is Ireland’s head of state.
However, he has remained as caretaker leader ever since.
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