Wednesday 29 January 2020

Election 2020: Five things we learned from Fianna Fáil's campaign launch

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin was flanked by his deputy Dara Calleary and leader in the Seanad Catherine Ardagh as he set out his party's stall for the general election. Ms Ardagh lost out on a Dáil seat by less than 40 votes in the last general election and the party have high hopes she will win out in Dublin South Central on this occasion. Mr Martin began the press conference by congratulating her on giving birth to twins in recent weeks. But the topic soon turned to the election as he was quizzed on Brexit, Fianna Fáil's election promises and the future of the TDs caught up in the 'vote-gate controversy'.

1. Micheál Martin gets irritated when Fine Gael criticises Fianna Fáil over Brexit

He branded claims by Fine Gael Europe Minister Helen McEntee that Fianna Fáil can’t be trusted on Brexit as just “plain silly”. She accused Fianna Fáil of supporting a disorderly Brexit after MEP Billy Kelleher warned he would vote against the Withdrawal Agreement in the European Parliament due to concerns over citizens’ rights in Northern Ireland.

Mr Martin said all legislation deserves scrutiny but insisted Mr Kelleher will be voting to support the deal. He expressed exasperation with Ms McEntee’s remarks pointing to the coherence across all Irish political parties on the Brexit issue.

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He also sought to puncture any boost Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is hoping to get for his part in securing the Brexit deal with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Mr Martin argued that Mr Johnson’s deal is more negative for Ireland than Theresa May’s would have been and an opportunity was lost to reach an agreement with her government.

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2. Fianna Fáil has to distance itself from Fine Gael

Mr Martin’s party allowed the Fine Gael-led minority government to stay in office for almost four years. This has left Fianna Fáil open to attack from Sinn Féin who have claimed the arrangement amounted to a coalition. Mr Martin needs to distance his party from Fine Gael and is doing this with attacks on Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s record in housing and health.

He argued that even while it facilitated Fine Gael in office it was Fianna Fáil who were responsible for insisting on a €300m affordable housing plan and the restoration of the National Treatment Purchase Fund.

Mr Martin hit out at Fine Gael’s handling of the National Children’s Hospital project saying the costs "went through the roof". He also said: "We have opposed irresponsible Fine Gael policies. We’ve demanded that tax and social support changes be fair."

He claimed Fianna Fáil’s budget plan will be “more prudent and sustainable than what will be proposed by Fine Gael.”

3. Fianna Fáil is ready to attack Fine Gael promises but not outline their own

The Fianna Fáil leader was vague on the promises that his party will make in its election manifesto. He’s promised a new approach to delivering targets in tackling crises in housing and health but is yet to provide detail on how the party will do this. Efforts to tackle insurance and childcare costs are also promised.

Tax and social protection changes "must be both progressive and sustainable" but Mr Martin hasn’t yet said what he wants to do in these areas. He accused Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty of promising the "sun, moon and stars" in a €5-a-week State pension increase over the next five years just months after Fine Gael “strongly resisted” increases in the Budget. Mr Martin insisted Fianna Fáil will support pensioners but is yet to outline how. His party’s overall budget plan is promised next week.

4. Martin not ruling out a place in Cabinet for 'vote-gate' TDs

Mr Martin sacked senior TDs Niall Collins and Timmy Dooley from his front bench after it was revealed that Mr Collins voted six times on behalf of his colleague in the Dáil despite Mr Dooly’s absence from the Chamber. Asked about possible ministerial roles for Mr Collins and Mr Dooley if Fianna Fáil wins power Mr Martin said: "I don’t think any leader announces their Cabinet in advance of a general election."

He insisted he did the right thing by removing them from the front bench in the midst of the ‘vote-gate’ controversy saying they both apologised "which indicated they both accepted and understood my actions".

5. 'Yes we made mistakes, but we laid the foundation for the recovery'

That’s Mr Martin’s argument to claims his party can’t be trusted with the economy after the economic disaster it presided over a decade ago. He insisted this argument is not as important to the electorate as Fine Gael seems to believe it is and said: "They’ve been banging that drum for quite a while".

He argued that in the "teeth of the crisis" it was the late Brian Lenihan’s plan that "laid the foundations for the economic recovery". He said: "yes we did make mistakes in terms of overspending and reducing taxation," while claiming that at the time Fine Gael wanted to spend more.

Mr Martin added: "We were clear we needed to change we have changed as apolitical party."

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