Martin's reshuffle a final roll of dice
The outcome of the referendum is the key to Fianna Fail's immediate future, writes Jody Corcoran
Now that Leo Varadkar's spin unit is to be no more, Fianna Fail's problems are at an end, right? That is the logic which follows the heavy concentration of political firepower on the unit since its ill-considered conception.
It was as though Fianna Fail believed voters would go to the polls next year, hold a pencil over the ballot paper and say to themselves: "Nah, I just can't vote for Fine Gael because of this Strategic Communications Unit."
Now the unit is to be scrapped, there can be no more excuses. Either Fianna Fail starts to close the considerable gap in the opinion polls or admits there is something else going on that has propelled Varadkar to within 60-plus seats in the next election, according to those polls.
It may just be, as I have said before, that the public likes the cut of Leo's jib and no matter what Fianna Fail comes up with between now and the election - "fairness" and an "Ireland for all" again, it looks like - that is not going to change.
When push comes to shove, however, it will come down to the economy, and the economy is flying at the moment. But before Varadkar gets carried away with his own publicity, he may pause to consider an argument made by Micheal Martin at a Fianna Fail frontbench meeting last week, when the dreaded "p-word" was eventually referred to.
He believes that poll figures always show a narrowing of the gap when the Dail is sitting. In other words, that the gap widens when data is collected while the Dail is in recess. I have examined the claim, and, while it's not strictly accurate, there is certain validity to it.
The logic seems to follow, therefore, that the gap between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail will narrow to nothing when an election campaign is under way and voters become entirely focused, even more than they are when the Dail is sitting. Certainly, the gap will narrow, but the momentum is with Fine Gael and it is difficult to see that changing at this stage, or this side of Brexit.
The Fianna Fail reshuffle last week may seem somewhat underwhelming, but it does point to both health and housing as being the chosen battle grounds. The appointments of Stephen Donnelly and Darragh O'Brien indicate a more strategic and aggressive approach respectively, but it also shows just how thinly Fianna Fail's talent is stretched.
Barry Cowen, meanwhile, is to be let loose in and around the preparation of the Budget, leading to suggestions by some that Fianna Fail intends to collapse the Government before then. But no, Micheal Martin intends to see through a (Fianna Fail-flavoured) Budget and the Finance and Social Welfare Bills, and hope the electorate will reward him for sticking to his word and providing the country with relatively stable government for three years. The election can be expected in February, therefore.
The appointment of the conservative Dara Calleary as deputy leader, and as director of policy development, also indicates the current arrangement will not last long after its allotted three budgets, but is more a sop to the dominant pro-life wing of the party, while also a shoot- down to potential leaders-in-waiting, particularly finance spokesman Michael McGrath.
Fianna Fail is riven at the moment by the abortion debate. At a guess, fewer than 10 of the parliamentary party intend to support repeal of the Eighth Amendment. So, in many ways, the reshuffle represents Micheal Martin's last throw of the dice.
If Fianna Fail wins the election he will be Taoiseach; if it loses, he will be replaced. But he will not be challenged before then, notwithstanding the barely concealed anger within the wider party over his brave pro-repeal, pro-12 weeks position on abortion.
As I have also said before, this is another reason why 'confidence and supply' will not be extended, because were it to be, there would almost certainly be a leadership challenge within a year.
And who will win the leadership if and when the position becomes available?
Alongside McGrath, Calleary and Justice spokesman Jim O'Callaghan (if he can give up the lucrative Law Library), two new names have now entered the fray with this reshuffle: Stephen Donnelly, who is doing much to inculcate himself into Fianna Fail culture and - you read it here first - Lisa Chambers, the party's new Brexit spokesperson, both of whom are pro-repeal.
Lisa Chambers is a most interesting politician, and a good bet I would suggest, to be the first female Taoiseach, if the party is to not retrench entirely into a conservative rural rump, out of which Micheal Martin has struggled to lead it.
There is another scenario doing the rounds within Fianna Fail these days that may be worth keeping an eye on. It is that, should Leo Varadkar fail to win enough seats to form a government of his own liking, and is obliged to turn to Sinn Fein, and should Sinn Fein baulk at the prospect of government with Fine Gael, then Micheal Martin would either resign as leader, or be dumped by Fianna Fail, to make way for a Fianna Fail/Sinn Fein coalition.
While there are undoubtedly elements within Fianna Fail who would relish the prospect, such a government would, actually be a recipe for instability and, frankly, I cannot see it happening. Anyway, I fully expect Leo and Mary Lou will do the deal first - if needs be - and what an interesting government that would be.
Meanwhile, we await the outcome of the Repeal the Eighth referendum, which will be a close-run thing.
A betting man would examine the odds on the referendum being lost, in which case a conservative will win the Fianna Fail leadership in due course. But if it is won, the prospect of a first female Fianna Fail Taoiseach by the mid-2020s rises considerably.
And, when you think about it, in a certain kind of way, Lisa Chambers would put the fear of God into Leo Varadkar.