Tuesday 18 June 2019

Colette Browne: 'It looks like Fianna Fáil is using excuse of Brexit as convenient way to hide bigger problems in party'

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin (centre) speaks to the press during his party's annual conference at the Citywest Hotel in Dublin. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin (centre) speaks to the press during his party's annual conference at the Citywest Hotel in Dublin. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

Speaking at the party's ard fheis on Saturday, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin told delegates "we have to get through Brexit first … and then we must focus on showing the Irish people that there is an alternative".

It was a telling remark and one that should chill delegates to the bone. Fianna Fáil, as a silent partner in the current Fine Gael Government, is in danger of fading permanently into oblivion.

Publicly admitting the party is more concerned with Brexit planning than marketing its policies will not help efforts to rebrand Fianna Fáil before an upcoming election.

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Brexit does represent an existential challenge for this country. But Fianna Fáil is not leading the negotiations. It does not have to organise the diplomatic, legislative or civil service response to the UK's exit from the EU.

Why then must it consume all of the party's energy - to the point that emphasising what an alternative Fianna Fáil government would represent to the electorate is put on the long finger?

At the very least, the party's conciliatory approach to Brexit, in adopting a united front with the Government, could be pursued in tandem with its efforts to create clear blue water between its policies and Fine Gael's.

Even the most dyed-in-the-wool Fianna Fáil supporter would have to concede there is little evidence of this happening.

A case in point was the ridiculous grandstanding over whether the Confidence and Supply Agreement would be renewed.

As far back as last July, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar requested an extension of the existing arrangement to 2020, a proposal that was given short shrift by Mr Martin, who vowed he wouldn't be giving Mr Varadkar "carte blanche".

Then, in September, the two men started exchanging pompous voluminous letters on the subject, with Mr Martin insisting the existing Confidence and Supply deal would have to be reviewed before any extension was agreed.

That process began after the Budget, on October 9, and continued for more than two months, to December 12, when Mr Martin announced a renewal of the existing agreement.

So, after months of public spats and high dudgeon, what concessions did Fianna Fáil manage to extract from Fine Gael in return for its continued support?

Nothing. Not a single thing. In fact, it doesn't appear Fianna Fáil even demanded anything. On the basis of that result, Mr Martin could have saved everyone a lot of hassle and just agreed to Mr Varadkar's initial request back in July.

Embarrassingly, when Sinn Féin attacked that decision, it was left to Fine Gael Minister Simon Coveney to defend Fianna Fáil's strategy.

He told the Dáil that Fianna Fáil deserved "credit" for its approach and assured the House it did not mean the party "will not be in opposition putting us under pressure on housing, health reform and a whole range of other issues".

When a political party's biggest cheerleader in parliament is the governing party it is supposed to be holding to account, then it's fair to say that things have taken a decided turn for the worse.

Mr Martin said he wouldn't give Fine Gael carte blanche, but can he explain what pressure Fianna Fáil is exerting on the Government to ensure improvements to the delivery of housing and health care?

Fianna Fáil has made much of extracting a commitment to create a €300m affordable housing scheme, but the Government will not even let it take credit for that - if it ever materialises.

In the Dáil last week, Fianna Fáil's housing spokesman, Darragh O'Brien, insisted the proposal was a priority for his party and asked when Minister Eoghan Murphy intended to publish regulations in relation to the scheme.

In reply, Mr Murphy stated "the affordability schemes were already there, but I very much appreciate Fianna Fáil's support for additional funding for the existing affordability scheme". Ouch.

The renewal of the Confidence and Supply Agreement was the perfect opportunity to stamp a Fianna Fáil logo on some of the measures being pursued by Government, but instead the party just rolled over.

The reluctance to force the issue, and demand quantifiable targets in return for continued support, suggests that it, and not Fine Gael, had the weaker hand in the negotiations.

Mr Martin and his front bench will argue the party is acting in the national interest. However, it is legitimate to point out that Fine Gael's reliance on its continued support creates opportunities as well as obligations.

Those opportunities have been squandered and Fianna Fáil, at the next election, will find it difficult to criticise Fine Gael's approach to issues like health and housing when it declined to force any change at a time when it wielded significant influence.

Worse, Fianna Fáil will find it hard to disentangle itself from its association with Fine Gael, with both parties now straddling the centre ground and little to distinguish them from each other.

The eagerness of heavyweight TDs to jump ship, and set their sights on a career in the European Parliament, suggests there is a feeling within the party that its prospects, and theirs, are limited.

To date, Cork TD Billy Kelleher and Cavan's Brendan Smith have announced their intention to contest the European elections, while Offaly's Barry Cowen is said to be considering standing.

Given Mr Martin has explicitly stated he would prefer if sitting TDs did not put their names forward, it suggests his authority within the party is waning - and not just among the usual suspects like John McGuinness and Éamon Ó Cúiv.

The decision not to withdraw support for the Government while Brexit looms on the horizon is a sensible one, but Fianna Fáil supporters may well ask why it is that their party, and not Fine Gael, is the one to make all the sacrifices.

Further, given no one knows how long the Brexit fiasco is going to last, Fianna Fáil should be wasting no time in selling its unique message to the people.

The reluctance to do that means Mr Martin could be accused of using Brexit as a convenient excuse to disguise bigger problems within his party - but the shambles in the UK cannot be used as a pretext for inaction forever.

To date, Brexit has been stuffed into the yawning chasm that should be filled with policy proposals, party positions on social issues and a description of what the party stands for, post the Celtic Tiger crash.

Once Brexit is squared away, the Government will quickly collapse and the danger is, at that point, it will be too late for Fianna Fáil to fill this void.

Irish Independent

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