Sunday 24 June 2018

Make or break for Micheál Martin

The next election will be his last chance to become Taoiseach, but ­Fianna Fáil's leader is facing mounting criticism in his ­party over the confidence and ­supply deal with Fine Gael. And internal tensions have been heightened by his stance on abortion.

Stick or twist?: Martin must decide when it is the best time to pull the plug on his party’s marriage of convenience with Fine Gael. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Stick or twist?: Martin must decide when it is the best time to pull the plug on his party’s marriage of convenience with Fine Gael. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Fianna Fáil TDs could be forgiven if they find their present co-existence with Leo Varadkar's Fine Gael government an irksome and humiliating experience.

The hapless deputies have to look on as the young leader of the rival party swans around as Taoiseach, hobnobbing with world leaders, showing off his multicoloured socks, and boasting of his achievements on social media.

At the same time, their own leader Micheál Martin has to stand by like a mature, trusty manservant.

He has to support Leo with confidence and a ready supply of votes to tide him over - while at the same offering him guidance about his shortcomings and throwing shapes as an opposition leader.

Martin can argue, with some justification, that he was left with little alternative after the last election than to ensure there was a stable government by supplying it with votes, while staying out of coalition.

But two years after an awkward marriage of convenience, with the party floundering in the polls, Fianna Fáil members are understandably concerned about whether Martin has made the right choice in firmly indicating that he will support the Government until next year.

The most recent Red C/Sunday Business Post poll showed Fianna Fáil falling to 24pc in party support, while Fine Gael consolidated its position at 33pc.

Carlow-Kilkenny TD John McGuinness was not exaggerating when he said this week that grassroots members and TDs are "worried" that Fianna Fáil's continued support for the Government is not in its best interests.

He has questioned whether the present arrangement, with Fianna Fáil propping up Fine Gael, could continue for another year - and warned that it was "turning into a farce".

How times have changed for a party that once lorded over the country with over 40pc of the vote. The former leader Bertie Ahern said recently in an interview that he used to get worried if the party vote was not above 38pc. Now the once-mighty Soldiers of Destiny are hovering in the mid-twenties in the polls.

This is an organisation that once not only saw itself as the "natural party of government", but also as the earthly incarnation of the national spirit.

Dr Eoin O'Malley, lecturer in politics at DCU, says: "I have talked to many Fianna Fáil backbenchers and they are worried that the party is becalmed in the polls. They don't see Fianna Fáil as making any progress."

When asked what the difference between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael was, Taoiseach Seán Lemass famously replied: "We're in, and they're out."

Now, in this hokey-cokey government, it must be hard for Fianna Fáil TDs to tell voters whether they are in or out, or shaking it all about.

"The confidence and supply arrangement is hard, because Fianna Fáil is seen to support the Government without getting any of the benefits," Dr O'Malley says.

One senior Fianna Fáil figure and former minister said there is a section of the party that is reluctant to support Leo Varadkar's government through another budget.

"They worry that the Government will have a giveaway budget that would make it much easier to win an election. These TDs believe it would be better for Micheál Martin to precipitate an election, and head off Fine Gael at the pass."

On the other hand, there is also a strong element in the party that believes that Martin is right to hang in there, and pick the right moment to take Varadkar down later on.

"Fianna Fáil would be in a hopeless position if it brought the Government down now," said a former minister.

"If it pulled the plug prematurely it would damage our credibility. We would get a lot of flak at the start of the campaign, and that often sets the tone of an election."

Micheál Martin has to get his timing right, because the next election will almost certainly bring his last opportunity to become Taoiseach. His acquaintances in his Cork base say there is one position where Martin does not want to be in his long political career: he will go to any lengths to avoid being the first Fianna Fáil leader not to be Taoiseach.

"If he doesn't win the next election, it is very hard to see him continuing as leader," says Dr O'Malley. "I doubt that he would want to spend another five years in opposition."

Some observers in his own party were surprised that he made such a firm commitment to support the Government beyond the budget, effectively ruling out an election this year. But others see it as a measured political calculation.

"Ultimately, he sees his aim as rehabilitating the Fianna Fáil brand," says Dr O'Malley. "He wants to reassure voters that they can trust Fianna Fáil. He wants people to see that they made a deal, and they are sticking to it."

One of the problems for Martin is that mud does not seem to stick to Leo Varadkar at the moment. After an early wobble over the Frances Fitzgerald affair and some awkward moments when he seemed surprisingly gauche, Leo Varadkar has managed to avoid major controversies.

If the polls are anything to go by, the row over the Strategic Communications Unit, and its demise amid accusations that it was being used as a heavily politicised spin machine, did not make a significant impact beyond the political beltway.

Micheál Martin will be hoping that by 2019, the shine will have come off the youthful Taoiseach.

"Martin will want to score a few hits by then," says Dr O'Malley. "He will give him a few digs, so that he is more battered and bruised, and less fresh-faced going into an election."

Seán Fleming, the Fianna Fáil TD and chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, acknowledges that there have been difficulties in his party over the confidence and supply arrangement.

"There have been tensions on this from day one. Nobody in Fianna Fáil loves this arrangement, but the majority felt that it was the right thing to do."

Fleming says he cannot see confidence and supply lasting beyond the end of the year, because he believes the Government has reneged on commitments in health and housing.

Back from oblivion

Whether he wins the next election or not, Micheál Martin will be remembered as the man who brought Fianna Fáil back from oblivion. In the 2011 election, the party was almost left for dead after the economic crash. In the 2016 poll, he more than doubled their haul of seats from 20 to 44.

It may have come back from the brink, but the abortion referendum has highlighted the confusion in Fianna Fáil over what it really stands for.

Whereas before, voters might vote according to old tribal loyalties, now they are likely to be looking for a more coherent worldview.

Voters could be forgiven for being confused by the party's message. As one commentator noted, at various times Fianna Fáil has been described as centrist, conservative, neo-liberal and radical - and Bertie Ahern even described himself as a "socialist".

While Micheál Martin has enthusiastically endorsed the repeal of the eighth amendment in the referendum, the majority of his TDs voted against even holding a referendum.

Dr Theresa Reidy, political scientist at UCC, says: "The referendum has exposed serious internal tensions in Fianna Fáil about what kind of party it should be."

The decision of Martin to announce publicly that he was supporting repeal, without consulting his backbenchers, provoked open hostility from some party members, and won plaudits for courage from others.

While Martin has been praised by the anti-abortion side for allowing a free vote, his wholehearted support for repeal has also prompted anger among some party members.

"There is a section of the party that is conservative on issues such as abortion - and we also saw it with marriage equality where many TDs were hardly enthusiastic," says Dr Reidy.

"Then, you have another group of deputies who are clear that the pathway to government is not taken by embracing that kind of conservative dynamic, and that 21st century Ireland is a different place.

"They can see that modern Ireland is predominantly urban and liberal, and the party has to have policies that appeal to a cohort of that group. If they are to win back power, they can't allow Dublin to go with Fine Gael as they did in the last election."

One senior party figure says that if it is to resume its role as the natural party of government, Fianna Fáil will have to win back floating middle-class voters in Dublin, who have gravitated to Fine Gael, while also rebuilding its working-class base in the capital.

Fianna Fáil used to pride itself on being the real Labour party of Ireland, but according to Eoin O'Malley, it now faces tough competition in Dublin from Sinn Féin and smaller left-wing parties.

Martin has faced some criticism for relying too much on an inner circle of advisers and not consulting his party TDs, but that is a familiar grumble about leaders, whether in government or opposition.

Former deputy leader Mary O'Rourke says: "There are always tensions on the backbenches - and that goes right back. That is par for the course in politics."

While the Fianna Fáil message is at times unclear, Leo Varadkar has made a loud and clear dog whistle pitch to the coping classes with his homage to "people who get up early in the morning".

"Leo is popular at the moment, because he is still seen as new and different, but does he have longevity?" says O'Rourke.

He may invite support from the people who get up early in the morning, but if they have to get up two hours earlier because they cannot afford a home within 100km of their work, they are likely to be more angry than content with Fine Gael.

Dr Theresa Reidy also says the polls tend to underestimate support for Fianna Fáil, and this was seen before the last general election.

A poll of polls in the week of the last election showed Fianna Fáil on 21pc, and the party went on to win 24pc of the vote. The poll of polls also exaggerated support for Fine Gael.

The Enda Kenny precedent

As Micheál Martin struggles to preserve Fianna Fáil's identity through the period of the confidence and supply arrangement, he can take comfort from the career path of his long-time opponent in the Dáil, Enda Kenny.

Like Micheál Martin, Kenny spent a long period on the opposition benches, batting off criticisms of backbenchers and surviving a leadership heave. And then, he went on to become the longest serving Fine Gael Taoiseach.

For the moment, Leo Varadkar remains the odds-on favourite with the bookies to be Taoiseach after the next election - a scenario that would probably consign Micheál Martin to political oblivion.

But with an ever-worsening housing crisis, uncertainty over Brexit, and the inevitable unforeseen events that bedevil every Taoiseach, there's many a slip between cup and lip. Despite the grumbles in Fianna Fáil, it may be too soon to write Micheál Martin's political obituary just yet.

@KimBielenberg

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