Wednesday 22 May 2019

TDs within Martin's own party represent the greatest threat

Disillusioned TDs on the backbenches feel excluded and isolated from decision-making, writes Philip Ryan

Shuffled pack: Dara Calleary is deputy leader and policy director
Shuffled pack: Dara Calleary is deputy leader and policy director
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin's reshuffle has done nothing to quell dissent among disillusioned backbenchers who feel isolated by the party's senior ranks.

First-time TDs and longstanding critics of Martin's top-down management style are growing increasingly frustrated at being excluded from the decision-making process.

The damaging split in Fianna Fail over the forthcoming referendum on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution for many underpins deeper problems in the party. For others it is seen as a springboard for the next leader of the party, whoever that may be. Martin's reshuffle gave the impression of a new dawn, but all is not well in Fianna Fail. One Fianna Fail TD last week said he had not seen such internal tension since the dying days of Taoiseach Brian Cowen's administration.

Shuffled pack: Jack Chambers won the defence portfolio
Shuffled pack: Jack Chambers won the defence portfolio

Others said the gap between the top brass and the parliamentary party was getting wider by the week.

The lack of respect shown to first-time TDs has added to this division. Martin's ambivalence towards the views of his own party has sown the seeds of rebellion. A coup d'etat is unlikely at this point but resentment is fermenting in the wing and playing into the hands of Martin's detractors.

In the past two week, 21 Fianna Fail TDs and seven senators voted against legislation which enabled the holding of a referendum on May 25.

Fianna Fail TDs were given a free vote on abortion long before members of any other party. Micheal Martin regularly makes a virtue of this, but it has come back to haunt him.

A number of Fianna Fail TDs are understood to have been berated for their decision to vote against the referendum legislation by the party's top brass. There are also claims within the party that TDs, and indeed senators, were approached before voting on the legislation and asked to reconsider their position.

In some cases this emboldened pro-life TDs in their belief the Eighth Amendment should be retained and a referendum should not even be held.

Others felt it was hypocritical to say TDs had a free vote on abortion while castigating those who did not vote along with the party leader.

The anti-abortion TDs and senators do not appreciate being pilloried by their own colleagues for their beliefs; beliefs, which, in some instances, have electoral benefits. Older voters with strongly held Catholic beliefs turned their back on Fine Gael following the enactment of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill.

Fianna Fail's success in the last election was, in part, down to cultivating the conservative Catholic voter who believed it was abandoned by Fine Gael. Most of this was rural but there was also a sizeable vote in some areas of Dublin. More evidence of Fianna Fail's social conservatism was the failure by the majority of the party to openly campaign during the marriage equality referendum.

The vote against the referendum by Fianna Fail politicians was a symbolic protest as they knew the bill would pass and the abortion poll would take place. Their opposition firstly symbolised their anti-abortion convictions. Secondly, it sounded a warning shot across Martin's bow. They want the leader to listen to their views, discuss their concerns and debate their policy ideas. Some TDs feel Martin sees them as nothing more than fingers to press Dail vote buttons when he decides what to support.

The free vote on abortion clearly caused some panic in the upper echelons of Fianna Fail and Martin may have some buyer's remorse. The image of half his party seeking to block an abortion referendum did not play well nationally. Even though it will clearly play well locally for the TDs who decided on that stance.

The appointment of Dara Calleary as deputy leader was spun by some in Fianna Fail as an olive branch to the pro-life wing of the party. Calleary is bright, articulate and popular within the party. The Mayo TD voted in favour of holding a referendum but will vote against removing the Eighth Amendment. The only other promotion made by Martin was Jack Chambers to the defence portfolio. Again, Chambers is a pro-life TD.

Martin is trying to re-imagine Fianna Fail as a more socially progressive party in the face of the most socially progressive incarnation of the Fine Gael party since Garret FitzGerald was leader. Martin (57) is also competing with Leo Varadkar (39), who polls suggest has caught the public's imagination.

But if Martin can't convince his own party to be more socially progressive, he doesn't stand much of chance of convincing the rest of the country that they are. Inclusivity is also a major problem for the Fianna Fail leader. Martin doesn't tell his party much. He criticises Sinn Fein for its cult-like secrecy, yet he operates a similar system himself. Most TDs feel they are the last to know when big decision are made. The frontbench is occasionally briefed on announcements but backbenchers find out after the event.

Take last November's stalemate over Tanaiste Frances Fitzgerald and the Maurice McCabe emails which almost caused a general election. Martin did not inform his TDs and senators when he decided to tell the Taoiseach he could no longer express confidence in the Tanaiste. Throughout the controversy backbenchers were left in the dark despite the implication of an election to them and their families.

Martin's decision to back the findings of the Committee on the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution also took his party by surprise. They did not expect him to back the introduction of abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy. They were given no advance warning and they certainly were not consulted. Martin is entitled to a free vote but he is the leader of his party and his statements carry more weight than the rest of his TDs and influence the public perception of Fianna Fail.

Either way, there was no heads-up for backbenchers who had to return to their constituencies and explain to voters that views of their leader were not their views.

TDs were also annoyed that they were not consulted before Martin decided to back the Government's decision to expel a Russian diplomat in solidarity with Britain.

All this is coupled with dismal opinion poll results and the complicated nature of the confidence and supply arrangement. As one TD put it: "We attack the Government three days a week and vote with them on the fourth."

These same disillusioned TDs and senators looked at the reshuffle with bewilderment. Several described it as disappointing and one went so far as to say the lack of changes was "cowardly". There have been complaints for some time about the communication skills of Martin's frontbench. Apart from a few obvious stars most struggle with live debates. Those that do tend to blame the media and claim there is a conspiracy against them. There is not.

Martin's lack of women and over-reliance on Brian Cowen-era TDs as his spokespeople leaves him open to criticism of being stuck in the past. However, the greatest threat to his leadership comes from within his own party.

Martin will need his entire team behind him to take on Fine Gael in the forthcoming election and cannot afford to continue to isolate the TDs and senators he will soon rely on for campaign support.

Sunday Independent

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