Explained: Why constituency politics lie at heart of water controversy
With the Fianna Fail leader watching Coveney and the McGraths warily, could local politics dictate the national agenda, asks Philip Ryan
Last Wednesday evening, Housing Minister Simon Coveney and Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin had dinner in the members' restaurant in Leinster House with some constituents.
The Cork couple had won dinner and a tour of Leinster House with the two political heavyweights at a charity auction a few weeks earlier. The public display of collegiality did not go unnoticed and onlookers said all present looked to be enjoying a pleasant meal.
The Coveney and Martin families are constituency rivals but they are not bloodthirsty arch nemeses. Those familiar with the politics of the Cork South Central constituency say there is a healthy competitiveness between the two politicians around election time, but apart from that, their relationship, at the very least, would be described as civil.
They have both developed and sought to nurture reputations for being conscientious Dail deputies whose thoughts are always focused on making Ireland a better place for its citizens. But to lead the country, you have to first get yourself elected to Dail Eireann. So the politics of Cork South Central are never far from their minds as they strategise from within the confines of Leinster House.
The four-seat constituency, which takes in a large chunk of the Cork City vote and some of its hinterlands, is on the cusp of making Irish political history. There is a strong chance that the next general election could see the public faced with a choice of voting for an outgoing Taoiseach and leader of the Opposition from the same constituency.
In fact, if you include the ambitious TD Michael McGrath, Fianna Fail's finance spokesman, there are no fewer than three potential Taoisigh fighting for votes in Cork South Central. And while Martin enjoys a cordial relationship with Coveney, there is deep mistrust between the Fianna Fail leader and McGrath. Constituency running mates by their very nature do not trust one another. But the dynamic is amplified tenfold when it involves a party leader and a would-be successor. It's also worth nothing that, while the last election was a great success story for Martin and Fianna Fail, it was McGrath who topped the poll in Cork South Central. Martin's core vote is city-based while McGrath's is more rural.
McGrath's brother Seamus, who is Cork County Mayor, also performed exceptionally well in the last local elections and is one to watch for the future. There is even talk locally of both the McGraths running in a future election, a la the Healy-Rae brothers in Kerry.
Martin is aware of his colleague's ambitions and would be anxious to ensure he waits his turn. Then on the other side, he has the increasingly popular Simon Coveney who is proving to be a far more credible candidate to replace Enda Kenny than first imagined.
All of this was at play over the last two weeks as Fianna Fail fumbled around with the divisive issue of water charges.
In the dying days of last month, there were sounds of relief and ecstasy from Fianna Fail parliamentarians as it looked like the water debacle was finally being put to bed. Fianna Fail TDs and senators, especially in rural constituencies but also in urban areas, have been getting it in the neck over the party's evolving stance on water charges. Many were uncomfortable fighting the last election on the back of an anti-water charges platform and believed the ongoing saga was damaging their chances ahead of the next national vote. But now it was done, dead and down the drain.
Simon Coveney was also celebrating. He tweeted congratulations to his water committee team for a job well done. Coveney thought Fianna Fail's environment spokesman Barry Cowen also believed the issue was boxed off. But fast-forward a few days into early April and the whole deal lay in tatters on the floor of Committee Room Four in Leinster House's LH2000 building.
It's difficult to apportion complete blame for the collapse of the deal to any one party or individual as there was play-acting on all sides. But in Fianna Fail anger was bubbling under the surface over what was seen as a failure to rid the party of the albatross around their necks that Irish Water has come to be.
To make matters worse, they watched as Fianna Fail sided with Sinn Fein on water committee votes. It all became very unseemly for the average Fianna Failer. The fiasco was also initially damaging for Coveney who had more invested in the water issue than most politicians.
In Fianna Fail, TDs believed the whole point of the breakdown in the water debate was a plot by the leadership to give Coveney a bloody nose as he prepares to face off against Varadkar for the Fine Gael leadership. It would never be said publicly but for reasons stated earlier, Leo Varadkar would be Martin's preferred leader of Fine Gael. It may make things difficult for him in Dublin but at least he would not have to stand beside him at the opening of a new school in the constituency. Of course, it wouldn't suit Coveney either, but he hasn't been leading a party for the past six years.
Cowen was Fianna Fail's lead on water charges but he was in regular contact with Martin and major decisions were always run by the leader.
The water fiasco really came to ahead last Sunday when this newspaper revealed details of a letter signed by Barry Cowen but sent from Micheal Martin's office to TDs last Saturday. It said Fianna Fail would not allow Fine Gael to change its leader if it did not agree to the proposed water deal, which was being backed by Sinn Fein and the hard-Left.
The letter drove an already prickly parliamentary party wild. There were calls and texts to the leadership team from furious TDs demanding to know why the party was taking such a drastic stance on water charges.
"I had lost the will to live at this stage," Kerry TD John Brassil said last week. "I did not get into politics to share the views of the hard Le ft," he added.
This view was shared by many in the party. To some in Fianna Fail, it seemed Martin's determination to do down Coveney was clouding his judgement. If this was his objective, it didn't work.
When the eventual deal on water was done, Coveney looked like the winner. Martin went on RTE Radio One to defend his party's stance. He was defensive and aggressive as he was forced to deny accusations of engaging in populist politics.
It has been some time since the Fianna Fail leader has sounded this uncomfortable during an interview.
He did, however, admit Fianna Fail factored in a Fine Gael leadership change when it signed up to the three-year confidence-and-supply deal with Enda Kenny.
The comment raises the question - what else has been factored into Fianna Fail's tactics on the basis of a Fine Gael leadership change?
There is a clear Fianna Fail strategy of citing the upcoming leadership contest when criticising Fine Gael over inaction or dithering on issues. Varadkar gets the majority of the taunts but due to his portfolio, which takes in housing and water, Coveney regularly finds himself facing off with Fianna Fail over policy. Martin would never be expected to roll over on policy for Fine Gael, but some of the fights his party has picked with Coveney over minor details of legislation would suggest a concerted effort to ensure the minister struggles in his portfolio.
Within Fine Gael, Coveney has benefited from his recent scrapes with Martin and Cowen. His party colleagues hold the view that the housing minister also came out on top in the row over rent controls before Christmas. The minister, who was once considered to have only an outside chance in the leadership race, is now almost neck-and-neck with Varadkar.
However, Coveney still has a major housing crisis to deal with which has the potential to leave him wide open to attacks. Like most Fianna Fail TDs, McGrath has kept his public comments on water to a minimum. His rural voter base means it would not have been the campaign issue that it was for Martin whose constituent campaigned against water meter installation.
The latest row has ensured water charges will be part of Micheal Martin's political legacy. If he is elected Taoiseach and Leo Varadkar ultimately becomes leader of the Opposition, Martin will be heralded as a tactical political genius.
But if it is Simon Coveney who receives the seal of office from the president and Fianna Fail is sitting in the Opposition benches in the Dail for a third term, there could be a new Fianna Fail leader from Cork South Central.