Protests: farmers can be relied upon to make their voices heard

AND then there were 82. The rate at which the government is losing deputies brings to mind the Agatha Christie novel Ten Little Indians (later changed to And Then There Were None for reasons of political correctness) or the children's song 'Ten Green Bottles'. A government that once enjoyed a handsome majority of 13 is now technically a minority administration, begging the question as to what might happen if another couple of TDs should 'accidentally fall'. Would there be any Fianna Fáil-Green government and any 30th Dáil?

August is supposed to be a quiet month politically, when under-pressure governments get a respite from the hurly-burly and jangled nerves can settle. But there are no hiding places during the worst recession in nearly a century.

The resignations from the parliamentary party of Jimmy Devins and Eamon Scanlon are certainly not fatal for the government. In all likelihood, both men will continue to vote with the government.

However, their decision to go highlights just how fragile the coalition's position is. It raises questions as to whether the government can successfully get its next budget through the Dáil, given that it is likely to contain up to €4bn in spending cuts and tax increases. And it increases the expectation that, if the government falls, it won't be the Greens who bring the house down after all, but Fianna Fáil backbenchers.

No less than the rest of the population, government deputies have become accustomed to good times and being always able to say 'yes' to their constituents. Many of them are mad as hell at the very dramatic change in their circumstances. And if the past week has shown anything, it is that there is not likely to be any reason for their mood to improve any time soon; quite the contrary.

The attitude at the top level of government both to cancer services at Sligo hospital and to the pharmacy dispute has been unwavering. The Sligo hospital issue would have been difficult for the government to row back on, even in good times. All the expert medical advice available confirms establishing centres of excellence, with multidisciplinary care and higher numbers of cases, is the only way to go.

A few years ago the government of the day would have shied away from a confrontation with pharmacists because of the inevitable fallout, with patients finding it difficult to get their medication. Not now.

The issue was raised at a Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting a few weeks ago, only to be brought to an immediate halt by Taoiseach Brian Cowen. He made it clear there would no going back on the decision to cut fees to pharmacies and that he did not want to hear it raised again, end of story. It had echoes of Charlie Haughey's no-nonsense handling of parliamentary party meetings in the late 1980s, when any TD who questioned the cutbacks being introduced by then finance minister Ray MacSharry was given short shrift.

Winter of discontent

Health minister Mary Harney has maintained this tough line in recent days. Even though it seems clear that the Irish Pharmacy Union (IPU) is willing to cede ground in the dispute, there is no compromise on the government side. Its decision will stand.

All of this suggests Fianna Fáil deputies should be bracing themselves for a winter of discontent.

For better or for worse, the cabinet has decided to do what needs to be done, regardless of the political consequences. The big question is whether it can bring the backbenchers, and especially members of what is increasingly being referred to as the 'awkward squad', along with it.

The upcoming budget/estimates process is certain to be full of landmines. Take your pick: a property tax; a major cut in child benefit; a cut in social welfare payments; reductions in special-needs teachers; closure of garda stations and army barracks; the ending of subsidies for regional air services to Dublin; the closure of little-used railway lines; reform of public sector pensions; cuts in farm support schemes; mergers in small schools and increased charges in school transport.

That is just a fraction of what is likely to be included in the final mix. The list of potential cutbacks could fill this page. By the end of the process, no sector of society will be untouched.

To say the government won't be thanked for making these tough decisions is an understatement. While some in government believe people have been persuaded of the need for tough measures, most deputies are more cynical. As one Fianna Fáil TD dryly noted last week: "Taking pain is fine as long as it is happening to somebody else."

In the face of an inevitable public outcry against the budget, the odds of the government surviving until Christmas are 50-50. The temptation for one or more Fianna Fáil deputies to take a 'principled stand' on some issue or other will be irresistible.

That possibility will also prey on the minds of the Green party. The instinct of Green TDs is to hang in there, if for no other reason than that they can ill afford to face the electorate now. The nightmare scenario for the party is if it backs the government's difficult and unpopular decisions only to find itself propelled into a general election because other government TDs vote against them.

The Greens would face almost certain wipe-out if this happened. Party TDs wouldn't be human (or politicians) if they weren't considering the option of finding an issue on which to make a stand and withdraw from government. There is no certainty that such a tactic would save Green seats in an ensuing general election, but the party could see it as the lesser of two evils.

No option but tough decisions

Then there are the two independent TDs supporting the government, Jackie Healy-Rae and Michael Lowry. Healy-Rae will be in no hurry to have a general election, given that the automatic re-election of Ceann Comhairle John O'Donoghue turns Kerry South into a two-seater for the next election, making it very difficult for an independent candidate.

Lowry's seat looks a lot more solid. But the canny Tipperary North TD will know before anybody else the moment when the benefits he gets from supporting the coalition are exceeded by the downsides of being associated with an unpopular government.

Most of the Fianna Fáil TDs are realistic enough to accept that the government has to make tough decisions to restore order to the public finances. They will be looking for a huge improvement from the Taoiseach in how he communicates with the general public when active politics resumes in September. But because of the magnitude of the decisions facing the government, better communication is unlikely to make much of a difference. Much like the controversy over removing medical cards for the over-70s last year, people may not be in the mood to listen.

Although nobody will be taking it for granted, the economic crisis should at least mean the second Lisbon referendum will be passed in October, giving the government a temporary fillip. But the real test will come in the December budget.

If the coalition can come through that and reach the Christmas holidays still in place, there is a good chance it can see out its term. But, as the defections of Devins and Scanlon last week demonstrated, that looks like a big 'if'.

The dirty dozen 12 decisions that could bring about more government defections

1. Reducing the limit for drink driving

Transport minister Noel Dempsey is determined to reduce the blood-alcohol limit in the autumn but is facing a revolt from backbenchers. Dempsey may have right on his side but it will be presented as an attack on rural Ireland and could be a point of no return for some FF backbenchers.

Potential rumpus rating 8/10

2. Defence cuts

An Bord Snip Nua has recommended a further reduction in the number of army barracks. This could be a very sensitive issue for TDs in the affected towns.

Potential rumpus rating 5/10

3. Ending subsidies for regional air services

It might not seem like a big issue but if, as An Bord Snip Nua suggests, these subsidies are ended it will have a serious impact on regional airports.

Potential rumpus rating 5/10

4. Closure of rail lines

The likes of Limerick Junction to Rosslare, Limerick to Ballybrophy, and Manulla Junction to Ballina are hardly used, but if they are cut it will be a bit like the GPO in 1916: tens of thousands of people will claim to have used them.

Potential rumpus rating 4/10

5. Benchmarking of public sector incomes to include provision for pay cuts

This is more a national than a local issue, but if the government does this, there will be hell to pay.

Potential rumpus rating 10/10

6. Downgrading of local hospitals

Following on from what happened with Sligo's TDs, Mattie McGrath has made it clear he won't accept any downgrading of South Tipperary general hospital, a view likely to be shared by other deputies across the country.

Potential rumpus rating 9/10

7. Cuts in social welfare

No explanation is required as to the potential fallout of this. The same holds true for a reduction in qualifying income rates for medical cards.

Potential rumpus rating 10/10

8. Cuts in child benefit

Whether it's a straight cut in the rate or a reduction by taxation or means testing, just watch the explosion of indignation if and when this happens.

Potential rumpus rating 10/10

9. Cuts in farm support schemes

Farmers still have huge political influence in rural areas and this could be a major headache for the government.

Potential rumpus rating 9/10

10. Property tax

All property tax will be seen as theft by many people. This could be to the government what the poll tax was to Margaret Thatcher all those years ago.

Potential rumpus rating 10/10

11. Cuts in special needs assistants

This will be fiercely resisted by the public sector unions and in schools.

Potential rumpus rating 7/10

12. Reintroducing third-level fees

The middle classes would go ballistic and it might be difficult for the Green Party to live with.

Potential rumpus rating 7/10