Friday 21 October 2016

There is nothing worse than when a sworn enemy seems to be acting reasonably

Gerard O'Regan

Published 09/04/2016 | 02:30

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin and Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny Martin pictured at an annual Embassy conference at Croke Park Photo:
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin and Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny Martin pictured at an annual Embassy conference at Croke Park Photo:

The title of a play by Tennessee Williams comes to mind when trying to work out where Micheál Martin stands this week. 'Cat On A Hot Tin Roof' just might sum up the extremely uncomfortable position in which the leader of Fianna Fáil now finds himself.

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We are seeing very high stakes political drama indeed. Events will gain a momentum of their own, and holding on to set-piece positions will not be without consequence, for all the main players in this new Dáil. They are in uncharted waters - where the tide flows, nobody knows.

Micheál Martin agreeing to a full-blown coalition, under whatever guise, with Fine Gael was never going to happen. The unyielding truth is that the great dividing line in Irish politics, was, is, and will continue to be for a long time into the future, between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Peculiarities of the last election - by way of throwing up a certain set of Dáil numbers - won't change that reality overnight.

The primary objective of the Soldiers of Destiny is to get Enda and co out of government, and replace them with a Fianna Fáil-led arrangement. That's the way things are. All the talk of other vagaries, such as trust, new politics, and the hoary old chestnut of Dáil reform, are but a sideshow.

Meanwhile, optics become ever more important. In its current bind, Fianna Fáil must be seen to be doing right by the country. That's why the offer to the party by Fine Gael of "full partnership" was a bit of a nightmare. There is nothing worse than a sworn enemy who, in public, is seen to be acting reasonably.

Despite saying a wilful no to the entreaties from Enda Kenny, the party must continue to massage public opinion. The phantom desire to do right by us all, by way of Fianna Fáil leading a "minority government'', must remain the fall-back illusion peddled by its heavyweights on the national airwaves.

Meanwhile, we career towards what seems like an inevitable general election. The main reason is that all the main players remain in a bind from which they cannot extricate themselves. Fianna Fáil can't do business with Fine Gael without the risk of self-imploding.

The latter - without some form of real backing from Fianna Fáil - just doesn't have the numbers to hang in there for the long haul.

Fianna Fáil is also most unlikely to eat humble pie, and provide a "written guarantee'' as suggested by Leo Varadkar, that it will support a Fine Gael-led arrangement for a set period.

All the while, Sinn Féin TDs in recent days could hardly restrain themselves in their desire to see the Big Two hook up together in any shape or form. This, as has been much commented upon, would allow their party to become the centre-piece of opposition in the Dáil. For an organisation so wedded to the idea of long-term strategy this is a mouth-watering prospect - neatly positioning itself to become the alternative government once a Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael unity pact has run its course. More than any other reason, this is why Martin will risk the nightmare of another election, rather than accept the blandishments from the acting Taoiseach.

It has also slowly emerged that the configuration of this Dáil has made the smaller parties and the Independents essentially bit players in the ongoing drama. They have become increasingly fearful of backing the wrong horse as reflected in the two Green Party deputies retreating to their bunker. The risk of ''contamination'', if there is to be another election soon, is something all politicians on the fringes can certainly do without.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party, regardless of what happens, will stay in opposition. The grieving from its annihilation at the polls can only get worse in the months ahead. The full enormity of the long, lonely battle required to revitalise the organisation at grassroots level is becoming apparent. The Sinn Féin ogre stalks its potential TDs in a range of constituencies, and many hard left activists on the ground no longer see their destiny with Labour. The party's version of social democracy, Irish style - traditionally bolstered by some individualist TDs capable of holding their seats no matter what - is under threat as never before.

It also has a simmering leadership issue. The twilight of Joan Burton's political career, now being played out, is a reminder once again that timing is the most important quality of all in the cruel game of politics. If she had waited and connived to ensure Eamon Gilmore had led the party into the last election, she would now be the heir apparent. As things transpired - and she probably had no option - she made her move too soon.

And so we come back to Micheál Martin, precariously placed on top of that hot tin roof. There is scant consolation for him if we paraphrase a few lines from the Tennessee Williams drama as reflected in the plaintive words of one of its characters.

He exclaims: "What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof? Just staying on it, I guess - as long as it can.''

Irish Independent

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