Tuesday 21 January 2020

New leaders Leo, Sean and Mary Lou to provide best prospects of New Politics

Leinster House. Photo: Tom Burke
Leinster House. Photo: Tom Burke

Ivan Yates

Behind the optics of endless showboating over government formation, sub-plots of more lasting significance are playing out beyond the plinth of Leinster House or hallowed halls of Trinity.

In the members' bar, canteen and their private offices, TDs are looking to the future, but in particular their future careers in the context of new party leaders.

British general elections carry instant fallout for failure; Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband didn't get time to get their coats after they accepted personal responsibility for defeat. And when the top dog is vulnerable, rutting season of suitors to be alpha politician ensues.

Enda Kenny, Joan Burton and Gerry Adams are staring at leadership retirement and I predict a hat-trick of departures within a year. And so succession stakes are the most critical time for TDs to leverage career opportunities as they seek to pole vault from the back to the front benches. Picking a winner early-on reaps rich dividends in repaid loyalty.

The slow bicycle race to be Taoiseach is overshadowed by games of snakes and ladders; putative future ministers sidling up to the next boss, anticipating a return from the áras to announce the cabinet. Fine Gael's leadership contest is already underway, and impatience to rid themselves soonest of Kenny is evident.

The refusal to readily agree a climb-down on Irish Water implies another agenda. The last outcome they want is an immediate election over water bills, with Kenny's head on Fine Gael posters. Dogmatic surliness suggests they're reluctant to give Enda his cherished historic place of a second consecutive term as Taoiseach.

His most loyal acolytes spin that he's privately acknowledged his race is run, and that he'll step down by next Easter with a dignified and honourable transition. They admit that after some disastrous campaign clangers, he accepts culpability and will go quietly, once a minority administration is in situ. But some won't wait.

The current hiatus means the leadership pretenders must get their act together. There'll be three - Frances Fitzgerald, Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar. But who will win, and why?

Fitzgerald will be 66 years old in August. With a pleasant, polite demeanour, she has credentials as caretaker leader, a safe pair of hands. As Minister for Children and subsequently calming stormy waters at Justice, Fitzgerald can claim to be a compromise candidate without a blemish on her CV.

A contest as early as possible is essential for her to succeed, coupled with the imprimatur of Kenny. But she lacks the dedicated coterie of parliamentarians to run a national campaign across FG's new Electoral College involving councillors and party members. Her niceness probably excludes the naked, ruthless ambition to win at all costs. She won't be winning.

Coveney has lots going for him: Cork people are clannish, covetous to secure top posts for their own, and a support base throughout Munster is anticipated. His time in Agriculture should convert into plenty of blueshirt farmer loyalty. He's 43 years old, a family man with deep FG pedigree, and a former MEP. As director of elections for the marriage equality referendum, he'll contend he straddles both the conservative and liberal wings of party. Sharing the same constituency as Micheál Martin doesn't help. Whoever beats him will win.

Varadkar, even younger at 36 years, is the first ever minister to publicly come out as gay. He's a proven vote-getter in Dublin, unpredictable, even enigmatic. He's unconventionally articulate, with candid charisma. His hints of ideological philosophy are probably just youthful naiveté, but it amounts to a high-risk option for older conservative party stalwarts.

Kenny did him no favours by putting him in the Health portfolio, where he was doomed to defend an indefensible crisis. Opponents may smear him as the ultimate Cameron-style posh boy, but he could attract new liberal members like Averil Power and Katherine Zappone.

In a political market of bland consensus and sameness, his points of difference make him high risk, but potentially high reward for FG foot soldiers. My prediction is he can win.

Labour's contest comes first, most likely in June or July, when Burton finally accepts responsibility for the party's wipe-out. Alan Kelly would have seemed certain to succeed, but some extraordinarily erratic episodes of excess macho mania under pressure have imploded his image. He's become a Marmite figure.

Brendan Howlin, almost 60 years old, is the TD most associated with the harsh regime of austerity. To recreate an entirely new image with that baggage seems insurmountable. I suspect he has little appetite for an all-out campaign, and he may drop out.

That leaves Sean Sherlock best placed. He's youthful (43), with time to rebuild Labour over a decade. He has junior ministerial experience, and is likeable. He represents the next generation, with former Democratic Left lineage, and he could emerge as a surprise victor.

Sinn Féin's contest is a straight two-way battle between Mary Lou McDonald and Pearse Doherty. Despite Doherty's economic credentials and border county geography, SF won't pass up the opportunity to opt for a young mother and its first female leader. Key TDs openly back her, and her feisty, pugilistic, combative style also suits the party's brand development to rip into FF.

Micheál Martin's FF will face new foes come the next hustings. The Kenny, Burton and Adams eras will end with the current musical chairs and play-acting. New leaders Varadkar, Sherlock and McDonald will provide the best prospects of New Politics. It's time for TDs to place their bets.

Irish Independent

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