The Malahide Mannequin is how a politician in north county Dublin refers to the pose frequently struck by the local minister.
Standing at a slight angle, the right hand is in the trouser pocket, the left arm is at a 90-degree angle with the hand resting around the closed button on the jacket, worn over an open-necked shirt. It seems to happen enough at events for native observers to believe it’s a trained stance, aimed at looking casual and active. It’s part of the image.
Whatever. No amount of posing is going to dig Darragh O’Brien out of the bind he is in now. “Housing is the single most important social issue facing our country,” Taoiseach Micheál Martin told the party faithful and the watching TV audience at the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis. The Taoiseach also divulged he is leaving the Dublin Fingal TD in place as housing minister in the forthcoming reshuffle.
It’s hardly a surprise. Martin is a naturally cautious leader and minimal changes are predicted in his Cabinet line-up, beyond the obvious moves at the top with the Taoiseach and finance minister roles swapping.
Martin’s early inkling of his thinking seemed to spark umbrage in some quarters in Fine Gael. Former minister Ciaran Cannon said the focus should be on building more homes, no matter the personalities.
“Commenting on who is in what job after December 15 is irrelevant. That should be dealt with by the leaders, not debated publicly,” Cannon said.
The remark seemed to be a dig back at Fine Gael for the row over Paschal Donohoe staying on as Eurogroup President, where Fianna Fáil wiped its Coalition partner’s noses.
Besides, it’s not as if Fine Gael will be volunteering to take over the portfolio, which proved to be a political graveyard for Leo Varadkar’s sidekick, Eoghan Murphy. What’s their solution? Put Simon Coveney back in to build more homeless hubs?
Appoint Simon Harris to gaze sympathetically on families on social housing lists? Get Helen McEntee to announce she’s drafting a strategy?
Fine Gael had a decade to get to grips with the housing problem but couldn’t get over the obsession with leaving it to the private market to solve. After failing to recognise it was the big issue in two general elections, it would be best for that party to leave well enough alone.
Like it or not, Darragh O’Brien and his Housing for All policy is the only show in town for the next two and a half years. Unless, of course, there is a change of Fianna Fáil leader in the meantime and O’Brien also figures in the equation there too.
The excuse that there are no potential replacements for Micheál Martin no longer holds water after a period of time in government.
Cabinet ministers from the next generation have now been blooded in dealing with crises and budgets. While he insists he wants to lead the party into the next general election and even return as Taoiseach, the consensus within the party is different. The view now seems to be he will hand over at some point before the local and European elections in 2024 for the run in to the next general election a year later.
The primary contenders for future leadership come from the Cabinet cohort, mainly Public Expenditure Minister Michael McGrath and O’Brien as housing minister. Jack Chambers, the government chief whip, is also in the mix and his name continues to be mentioned among backbenchers. But the rising young star will have to get hold of a senior ministerial portfolio to prove himself.
Norma Foley also has ambitions after a solid performance in education. Beyond these, the loss of Cabinet experience has proven costly for Dara Calleary and Barry Cowen. Jim O’Callaghan wants to be Taoiseach of a united Ireland, but being a junior minister is beneath him.
The focus within Fianna Fáil, as of now, remains on Michael McGrath and Darragh O’Brien, whose backgrounds do have similarities.
Both hail from the Bertie Ahern class of 2007, having been elected as TDs for the first time in the former Taoiseach’s third successful election, following success in the 2004 local elections. They worked in finance before going into politics: McGrath an accountant, O’Brien in pensions. The young go-getters typified the rising ambitions of the tail end of Celtic Tiger Ireland.
Then disaster struck. McGrath survived the cull of the economic crash by holding on to his seat and became finance spokesman following the sad passing of Brian Lenihan. O’Brien lost his seat in 2011 and clawed his way back through the Seanad.
Their brothers hold their council seats and assiduously guard the constituency bases of Carrigaline and Malahide respectively. Key members of Martin’s frontbench in Opposition, their appointments to the Cabinet seemed a certainty.
McGrath’s record as a minister is more impressive, having guided through three budgets and negotiated a public sector pay deal. He will become finance minister in December, having fended off Fine Gael’s attempt to keep the title. The finance ministry was a traditional rite of passage for a Fianna Fáil leader. Yet O’Brien is regarded as the frontrunner for the leadership.
Fundamentally, it is an image issue. McGrath is described by a ministerial colleague as “a bit of a technocrat”, while O’Brien is seen as charismatic and a pretender to the title of “the new Bertie”, with the drawing power to appeal to voters.
Geography also plays a part as McGrath shares the Cork South-Central constituency with Martin and there is an appetite for the next leader to come from Dublin.
O’Brien’s immediate future though rests on delivery in the housing portfolio. The Government is sticking with his plan but there is certainly scepticism within Fine Gael over its impact.
The minister is regarded as hands-on and making every effort but housing targets being missed is leaking credibility from his plan.
His jousting with Sinn Féin’s Eoin Ó Broin is all terribly entertaining on the floor of the Dáil, with last week’s barbs including: “Try to behave yourself, Eoin”, “You are easily provoked”, “It’s not all about him.”
Except it is all about him. Sinn Féin is cleaning up because of the housing crisis and it was the reason behind their election success. O’Brien finding solutions is key, not just to Fianna Fáil, but his own prospects.