Thursday 27 April 2017

Once again, Fianna Fáil is where egos dare

Stephen Donnelly was unveiled by Micheál Martin this week Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Stephen Donnelly was unveiled by Micheál Martin this week Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins
John Downing

John Downing

Latest rumour is that they will issue sunglasses to Fianna Fáil ard fheis delegates sitting in the first three rows to protect their eyes from the bright light shining from new star signing Stephen Donnelly.

And that is not the only health and safety issue, of a political nature, arising from Micheál Martin's move to recruit the Wicklow Independent TD - who looked in briefly on the foundation of the Social Democrats in 2015, and had made slagging off Fianna Fáil one of his specialist subjects for several years.

Let's acknowledge that the move is a very good one for Mr Martin and Fianna Fáil. And on balance, there are also probably more advantages than disadvantages for the undoubtedly talented Mr Donnelly.

Equally, the resulting team management problems which arise are those associated with success, and ones which Fianna Fáil could only have dreamed about this time last year. Another TD has been added to the party roll; all things being equal, a second seat in five-seat Wicklow should be achievable; and the frontbench team has been given added political heft.

That said, Mr Martin's new coup does pose "personnel management issues" for Fianna Fáil. Shiniest boy in the class, Mr Donnelly, will be looked askance upon by the heavyweights who have soldiered longer in tougher times.

There's Darragh O'Brien, ousted from Brexit spokesman top-spot and left with a slimmed-down foreign affairs brief; Dara Calleary the able enterprise spokesman; and Michael McGrath previously seen by many as capable of fitting the big financial shoes of Michael Noonan. And those are just the first three names which sprang to mind.

Any or all of that trio may have cause to learn soon that loyalty just might not be the wily Mr Martin's strong suit when push comes to shove. The damage done in Fine Gael - when its star-signing, George Lee, gloriously landed from RTÉ in June 2009, and acrimoniously departed eight months later - comes to mind.

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Political calamity of the extent involved in the Mr Lee episode is largely avoidable in this case. Mr Donnelly has spent six years at Leinster House since he made his political debut as a "non-politician" novice in February 2011. The blithe "that-was-then-this-is-now" way he shrugged off his host of Fianna Fáil excoriations strongly suggests he has the capacity to settle in with the ever pragmatic 'Soldiers of Destiny' who have always liked travelling light on the policy side.

Gratitude is a scarce commodity in political parties. But some gratitude is due to sitting Wicklow Fianna Fáil TD Pat Casey, who graciously made a virtue of necessity and went with the flow.

Indeed, while Fianna Fáil has always prided itself on being pro-business, it is also now leaning much more towards a more people-centred approach to politics. That unlikely leftist radical Willie O'Dea is strongly advocating serious thought on a minimum income for all citizens, and arguing cogently for the case. That is all positive stuff for Mr Donnelly. But big political egos, and sometimes even the smaller egos, require careful management. Just when things appear to be going right for Mr Martin, he must approach the coming months with caution.

It must be said, however, that just 12 months ago the Fianna Fáil leader appeared to be swimming against a strong tide with little solace from opinion polls. He and his colleagues delivered a very good result on February 26 last and have operated cleverly enough since then.

It is worth recalling that six years ago the party appeared to be on the point of extinction. It is often forgotten the 17pc vote Fianna Fáil got in the February 2011 electoral meltdown was less than the vote which consigned the old Irish Parliamentary Party to the dustbin history in 1918. Only proportional representation saved Fianna Fáil from total extinction.

These days, opinion polls show it as the most popular party in the country. The party's key people are no longer open to the accusation that they are unknown.

It brings its own perils. But right now Mr Martin's Fianna Fáil is once more a place where egos dare.

Irish Independent

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