Monday 23 September 2019

Under the skin: Varadkar sets out to rile Martin

The Taoiseach aims to wind up the Fianna Fail leader until he explodes the Government

AGITATING: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, at Government Buildings in Dublin last week. Photo: Tom Honan/PA Wire
AGITATING: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, at Government Buildings in Dublin last week. Photo: Tom Honan/PA Wire
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

Leo Varadkar wants to get under Micheal Martin's skin. He wants to get under his skin and live there. He wants to set up a constituency office there and start handing out Fine Gael leaflets.

The Taoiseach is purposely trying to antagonise the Fianna Fail leader. He wants to wind him up until he explodes and brings down the entire Government. He's also trying to cause dissent among Fianna Fail backbenchers. Push them over the edge and have them killing each other and calling for their leader to stand up to Fine Gael.

He's not interested in a cosy and collegial relationship which would see both parties earn the respect of the public and share in the electoral spoils. Not at all.

He wants acrimony. He wants tension. He wants Fianna Fail to know Fine Gael will not be pushed around and bow to their demands in the same way the party did under Enda Kenny.

If there is to be an election, neither side wants to call it as the public does not really like elections. They especially don't like elections when things are going well.

So, if there is to be a snap election called over a breakdown in the confidence and supply agreement, both sides want to ensure the other caused it.

Senior Fine Gael sources last week said the "name of the game" was agitating Fianna Fail until they couldn't take it any more, pushing them into collapsing the Government.

"There will be a lot of poking the beast from now on," the source said.

From day one of his term as leader of the country, Varadkar clashed with Martin over the appointment of former Attorney General Marie Whelan to the Court of Appeal.

Fianna Fail believed the new Taoiseach was trying to pull a fast one on them, and the public, over the appointment. There were heated debates in the Dail where Varadkar divulged details of private conversations between the two which didn't sit with what was being said publicly.

It was a rocky start to what is supposed to be the most important political relationship in the country.

Afterwards, Varadkar said he wanted to start afresh and play friendly with Martin in future. Martin said things had got better and two began to enjoy a workmanlike relationship.

But Varadkar couldn't resist. With Budget talks looming he decided he wanted to tweak tax bands rather than reduce the USC.

Now he knew full-well reducing USC for low and middle-income earners was one of the key terms of the confidence and supply agreement but he wants to put his stamp on the Budget and moving the entry point for the higher rate of tax is more appealing to the voters he's trying to attract.

He also knew this would make Budget negotiations more difficult for Fianna Fail as it's hard to be opposed to changing the tax bands, but equally the terms of the confidence and supply deal is what underpins the Government.

Martin was always going to dig in on USC because he believes cutting the lower rates is fairer and will benefit more people. It's is a more centre-left measure than Varadkar's proposal to allow people to earn more before they start paying the higher rate of tax.

It was a deliberate attempt by Varadkar to draw battle lines ahead of Budget negotiations. It also gave him an opportunity to distinguish Fine Gael from Fianna Fail and bring to an end the refrain from Sinn Fein that both parties are ideologically more or less the same.

The poking will continue once the Budget negotiations are completed. For example, on Friday Fianna Fail kicks off its ard fheis - a two-day party conference in the RDS in Dublin where all the Fianna Fail faithful will gather to bitch and moan about Fine Gael.

Traditionally, those having an ard fheis are given a clear path for the weekend by the other parties. But not with Varadkar running the show.

The Taosieach has decided to hold a special Brexit Cabinet meeting on Friday, the same day the Fianna Fail ard fheis begins.

Not only that he has also decided to hold it in Martin's home county of Cork.

Martin will let Varadkar play his games as he believes the public is not interested in political posturing. But when the poking starts getting up the backs of his members, as it did last week, he may have to revise his strategy.

Sunday Independent

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