Wednesday 16 October 2019

Fionnán Sheahan: 'Martin knows the price of a badly timed general election'

Still standing: From left, Fianna Fáil’s Thomas Byrne, leader Micheál Martin and deputy leader Dara Calleary. Photo:
Still standing: From left, Fianna Fáil’s Thomas Byrne, leader Micheál Martin and deputy leader Dara Calleary. Photo:

Fionnán Sheahan

At its formulaic ard fheis, Fianna Fáil hummed and hawed over its ongoing propping up of the Fine Gael-led Government of misfits. The grassroots are restless. Moreover, they're hungry to be back in power.

Fianna Fáil had never been out of power for two terms, so its status as a natural party of government is no more. The notion of a third term in the wilderness does not rest easy.

Micheál Martin is playing a longer game than the next opinion poll or motion of no confidence in whatever minister falls foul of the headlines, though.

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The threat of Brexit and the forthcoming local and European elections mean there is no sight of a general election on the horizon, despite the frenzied speculation in the Leinster House bubble.

Beyond the summer, Martin is clear to tear up the Confidence and Supply Agreement whenever he sees fit. He'll be in no rush.

The belief he got nothing new from the negotiations on the agreement is valid. That's the beauty of it from Martin's perspective.

There is no policy agenda tying him into indefinite support of Fine Gael. In the absence of an agreed red line, he can draw his own and pull the plug. Fine Gael seemed to only realise this scenario after the deal was done.

A student of history, he knows the importance of timing in forcing a general election.

The three pivotal moments in his own electoral career have come about as a result of the bad timing of general elections.

Martin will be 30 years a TD this year. He was first elected, albeit at his second attempt, in the snap election of June 1989 when Charlie Haughey made a grasp for an overall majority, only to lose seats and end up in coalition with the Progressive Democrats. Mirroring the current arrangement, Haughey was trying to make a break from the shackles of a minority government in need of informal support, in the form of Alan Dukes's Tallaght Strategy.

Martin's elevation to Cabinet came about after the June 1997 general election when John Bruton sought to return the Rainbow government. With the economy on the rise, the view in hindsight is the Fine Gael-Labour-Democratic Left coalition would have benefited from waiting until the autumn. At the time, there was also a growing whiff off Fianna Fáil as revelations of corruption emerged. By October 1997, Ray Burke had resigned as foreign affairs minister amid allegations he had received money from a property developer.

Martin also got the bounce of the ball three years ago with the delayed February 2016 general election when the party staged its comeback of sorts following the meltdown of the economic crash in 2011.

Enda Kenny bottling it on calling a general election three months earlier in November 2015 proved crucial. Fianna Fáil strategists reckon the extra few months allowed them to firm up their preparedness and candidate strategies, which was worth about six extra seats.

However, Martin knows the figures don't add up right now for a general election. Fianna Fáil is on 24pc in last weekend's Red C poll for the 'Sunday Business Post' - the same as the party's return from the 2016 general election.

The juvenile wing of Fine Gael is gung ho for a general election, convinced the nation is enamoured by Leo Varadkar. Try going beyond the M50 to test that theory.

But both parties also need to realise the landscape has changed in the Dáil. Under so-called New Politics, there is no longer a desire on all sides to actually serve in government. Anything up to 60 TDs arguably don't want to be in power at all.

Fianna Fáil is set to have a pretty good European election. The party only elected Brian Crowley last time out and he vacated both Fianna Fáil and the European Parliament pretty soon after.

The depiction of the success of Barry Andrews as a blow to Martin's reforms is delusional. Andrews ticks all the right boxes: he's capable, he has name recognition, he has pedigree, he's articulate, he's calm, he's experienced - albeit a tad boring.

Sure, he'll have to explain problems at the Goal charity under his watch, he was a minister in the calamitous Brian Cowen government during the crash, and he's hardly a breath of fresh air as a member of the Andrews clan, who are Fianna Fáil royalty. But he can overcome those deficits as he won't embarrass the party or antagonise opponents, which is actually important.

The Dublin MEP candidate plays a vital role for the main parties as the most high-profile flagbearer nationally in the local and European elections campaign.

This time around, there are four seats in Dublin, with only one incumbent running. It's hard to see how they can lose even if the party is struggling in the capital. Andrews is well-placed to slot into the role vacated by Brian Hayes as the middle-ground voice of reason on European affairs.

Fianna Fáil research shows there is more floating support up for grabs on the southside of the city, while the loyal party voters on the northside will still offer support.

Across the rest of the country, there are seats for the taking in Ireland South and Ireland Midlands-North-West. And at least there's competition to get on the ticket.

Certain political observers got fierce excited about Billy Kelleher putting up posters at the ard fheis. Kelleher is seeking votes of Fianna Fáil members from Portmagee to Portlaoise. Of course he's going to throw up posters at the ard fheis.

Kelleher now enters a shoot-out with Seamus McGrath, the brother of Fianna Fáil finance spokesman Michael McGrath. McGrath the younger is the chosen one for party headquarters, who want to avoid a by-election for Kelleher's second Cork North-Central seat and challenge for a second seat there in the next general election.

The shafting of former Lord Mayor of Cork Tony Fitzgerald, the most likely by-election candidate, at a local election selection convention implies a by-election win will be tricky.

After a disastrous, mid-crisis 2009 locals, Fianna Fáil bounced back at the 2014 locals, winning 267 seats and becoming the largest party at the local authority ahead of Fine Gael.

Martin fancies his chances of getting a bounce from the locals and Europeans, blooding new general election candidates and seeing just how strong the Varadkar brand actually plays.

Don't write him off just yet. His three decades in politics shows it's never predictable.

Irish Independent

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