Sunday 15 July 2018

John Downing analysis: Fianna Fail's 'war zone' changes to target Fine Gael

Outfoxed by Fine Gael, Martin tries to toughen his first team

Micheál Martin. Photo: Damien Eagers
Micheál Martin. Photo: Damien Eagers
John Downing

John Downing

Micheál Martin has made three big changes in the "war zones" where Fianna Fáil is just not landing enough punches on Fine Gael.

The party's continued lag in opinion polls has prompted this surprise first front bench re-shuffle in almost two years.

Ireland's housing crisis worsens each month, so out goes Barry Cowen and in comes Darragh O'Brien from Dublin Fingal.

Health sees all-time record numbers of people on trolleys and other long wait-times, so it's move over Billy Kelleher and give Stephen Donnelly a pop at Health Minister Simon Harris.

Stephen Donnelly's move from Brexit sees promotion for first-time TD, Lisa Chambers of Mayo, who will now pursue the party's increasing criticism of the Government's management. The other notable change is the appointment of Dara Calleary as deputy leader and head of policy, but without a specific government minister to mark.

Another switch speaks to the party's continuing struggles in Dublin, as 27-year-old Jack Chambers of Dublin West just makes the first team as defence spokesman. Limerick's Niall Collins moves from enterprise to foreign affairs, while for the rest, it's as you were.

Darragh O'Brien. Photo: Damien Eagers
Darragh O'Brien. Photo: Damien Eagers

The last time Micheál Martin reshuffled was shortly after this hybrid minority coalition took office in May 2016. These changes are limited but pose key talking points in a party riven over the abortion referendum.

It has had no deputy leader since Éamon Ó Cúiv resigned in March 2012 in a dispute over the EU Fiscal Treaty.

Dara Calleary's appointment is a surprise and could be a blunt message to two putative successors to Micheál Martin as leader; Michael McGrath who stays in finance, and Jim O'Callaghan who stays in justice.

It is also a tribute to the effective and likeable Dara Calleary as his assignment to policy development means heavy-lifting on general election preparations. But the loss of responsibility for public spending gives the move a lateral tinge.

Lisa Chambers. Photo: Tom Burke
Lisa Chambers. Photo: Tom Burke

In his terse statement accompanying the team change announcement, Mr Martin said: "We continue to drive forward the argument for action on the country's housing and health crises." There is an aspirational air to that.

There have been rumblings that Barry Cowen, who on paper gets a promotion to police public spending, was not hurting the floundering Housing Minister, Eoghan Murphy, as the story continues to from bad to worse. But will the voluble and assertive Darragh O'Brien do better?

The timing of Billy Kelleher's move from the other conflict zone of health is curious, though he has held that post since spring 2011.

He was a key figure in supporting the abortion referendum, and parallel legislation, and this is now moving into a crucial period with the referendum on May 25. Mr Kelleher's move to enterprise and employment is questionable in an era of effective full employment.

Stephen Donnelly. Photo: Tony Gavin
Stephen Donnelly. Photo: Tony Gavin

Stephen Donnelly's move to health from the Brexit portfolio comes just as he was gaining traction, with criticisms of the Government allowing the Border issue drift unresolved right to the tail end of EU-UK divorce talks next October.

Lisa Chambers should do well replacing Donnelly. But it is notable that the only other women on the first team, who have a senior minister to directly mark, are Anne Rabbitte of Galway East and Niamh Smyth of Cavan-Monaghan.

Surely, a missed opportunity to improve the party's image for promoting women.

Irish Independent

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