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Thursday 22 March 2018

Varadkar and Martin battle for hearts and minds of Middle Ireland

It will be fascinating to see whether Fine Gael's 'new liberal generation' leader really will win the day, writes Jody Corcoran

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar

In the quiet days over Christmas, Leo Varadkar raised the prospect of an extension to the Fine Gael-led government's confidence and supply agreement with Fianna Fail. In my view, there is no prospect of such an extension. Therefore, we can expect the next election to be called no later than February 2019.

After that election, there is also little prospect that Fianna Fail will sign up to another confidence and supply deal in a circumstance where it is the supporting party in Opposition.

However, should Fianna Fail on its own, or with a smaller party such as Labour, and/or with Independents, have more seats than Fine Gael, then a reciprocal confidence and supply deal supported by Fine Gael in Opposition remains on the cards.

As support levels currently stand, the only alternative, and one which should not be discounted, is a Fine Gael/Sinn Fein coalition, towards which I suspect the Taoiseach, Tanaiste, and many Fine Gael TDs are relatively disposed.

The result of the abortion referendum this year will tell us much about what will happen in the subsequent election.

In the context of the Taoiseach's expressed caution last week on the proposed referendum, Solidarity TD Ruth Coppinger accused politicians such as Varadkar of trying to hide behind what she called an "imaginary middle ground".

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin
Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin

Coppinger is quite wrong and Varadkar quite right. There is, of course, a middle ground among voters which is why the now Solidarity party of which Coppinger is a member won less than 4pc of the vote in the last election, notwithstanding its disproportionate media profile, which transferred into six seats, at least one of which it was fortunate to win.

It is also why Fianna Fail and traditional Independents won significantly more votes than most predicted.

Coppinger had a point, though, when she sought to dismiss the portrayal of the Taoiseach as "the young leader, painted as part of a new liberal generation".

Like all great, or at least good politicians, Varadkar is many things to many people, but he is first and foremost leader of Fine Gael, which remains a conservative, centre-right political party in the honourable tradition of such parties.

In the next election, there will also be what we might call the 'Leo factor' to take into account - that is, his image as a modern young leader of a newly confident country emerging from the shadow of the UK.

While there is some merit to that image, it is also over-egged a little, not least by the media and some commentators who seem to be in thrall to Varadkar. That said, the 'Leo factor' will be the conundrum of the next election.

On the abortion issue, however, both he and Micheal Martin will need to tread carefully, so as not to startle the support of the traditional middle ground which ultimately will decide whether Fine Gael or Fianna Fail, or which combination of parties and/or Independents, will form the next government.

That is not to say that all traditional voters are arch conservatives and, therefore, opposed to extending abortion services in all circumstances, or unaware of the issues which have been reasonably highlighted by both the Citizens' Assembly and subsequent Oireachtas Committee.

That said, the abortion referendum will tell us a lot about the state of mind of traditional Ireland, depending on what question(s) is asked and laws to be subsequently introduced.

As a consequence, we will be able to interpret whether there has been a significant shift towards what Coppinger refers to as "a new liberal generation".

In my view, there has been such a shift, but it is not as pronounced as many in politics and the media would have you believe.

There are many issues, but the next election will be primarily fought on two which are part related: stewardship of the economy and the housing crisis, with the health service thrown in for a bit of a kick-about.

But the health service will not be hugely influential for voters in deciding between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, neither of whom have shown themselves particularly capable of fully sorting out what is, in truth, more a seasonal disaster zone, but which, by and large, functions as adequately as the public has come to expect and reluctantly accept.

However, the housing issue, which reaches across generations and social classes, from the leafier suburbs to the homeless, is an entirely more unpredictable determinate of voter choice, which will not allow housing to go the way of health, towards an acceptable level of chaos.

Also in my view, there is another factor related to the housing crisis which has so far not been referred to or taken into account, and that is - whisper it - for all its faults in the past, there exists a sneaking regard for the know-how of Fianna Fail to get housing built.

In the election, this sneaking regard will be set against the stewardship of the economy by Paschal Donohoe, who is likely to be Fine Gael's secret weapon, rather than 'new liberal generation' Leo.

Now let me return to Fianna Fail and the bind into which it has gotten itself on confidence and supply.

Shane Ross was correct when he said, also over Christmas, that Fianna Fail has become "trapped" by the confidence and supply deal it agreed to form the Government.

There was always the prospect that this Government would fall related to the issues which have gripped the Garda Siochana and Department of Justice.

But when the two parties got past the Frances Fitzgerald crisis in November, it became inevitable that the Government would run its allotted course.

For Fianna Fail now, there is no alternative, notwithstanding the rather excitable views of some backbenchers, and as a consequence, some commentators who would have you believe the Government is at risk of collapse.

When Micheal Martin signed up to confidence and supply for three budgets, it was always his intention to honour that deal, even if he reserved his position according to events.

Indeed, he had an opportunity, twice, to collapse the Government in relation to Garda controversies but chose not to on the first occasion when there was genuine cause and on the second, when it was a somewhat impetuous Varadkar who was forced to back down.

Moreover, Martin's honouring of the deal, at this stage, has become an electoral asset more than a liability. He kept his word: three budgets.

But to allow the Government to continue beyond the terms of the agreed deal he signed up to in 2016 would, I believe, be political suicide for Fianna Fail.

Martin knows this more than anyone. So he will make his case: he has provided the country with stable government for three years, during which time many people have emerged to an extent from the difficult circumstances which existed at the last election.

But only Fianna Fail is capable of sorting out the housing crisis.

On that basis, Martin will go to the country after the Finance Bill is passed at year's end and make his case with a degree of confidence.

The great unknown in the election will be the extent to which 'new liberal generation' Leo has really caught the public imagination. And there is no doubt he has.

But for all the hype, to date he has no outstanding achievement to call his own, other than to have negotiated skilfully the first phase of Brexit, which was easier to do than not when he had a united Europe on Ireland's side.

The outcome of the abortion referendum will also be an achievement one way or other, but it has the potential to be a double-edged sword.

So Varadkar will mostly emphasise a stronger economy, with the recent, albeit slow, unravelling of austerity measures as an achievement which can be noted down in Fine Gael's credit.

In the media and on social media, the Taoiseach has also played masterful politics, which many have criticised as 'spin.

But I wonder, at how many doors he has called since his elevation to the highest office; or how many 'ordinary' people has he met in that time, and to what extent has he engaged with them at an instinctive level.

This is his Achilles heel: an unerring ability to communicate but not necessarily to connect.

In other words, it will be fascinating to see whether the next election is different from others before, that is, whether the door-to-door 'ground war' of the campaign itself really matters, or whether 'new liberal generation' Leo Varadkar's rock star credentials will be enough to see him to victory.

We shall see.

Sunday Independent

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