Thursday 13 December 2018

Kevin Doyle: Time for FF to light a match under Varadkar

Micheal Martin's party needs to start behaving like it is in opposition if it wants to halt Fine Gael's advance, writes Kevin Doyle

GET IN THE SWIM: Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin at the Courtmacsherry, Co Cork New Year’s Swim in aid of the local RNLI Lifeboat. Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney
GET IN THE SWIM: Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin at the Courtmacsherry, Co Cork New Year’s Swim in aid of the local RNLI Lifeboat. Photo: Michael Mac Sweeney
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

January is a time for turning up the political heat.

After an arguably well-earned Christmas break, all sides should be setting out their stall for 2018 - and in this, a potential election year, the stakes are extra high.

Few in government thought they could ease their way into the New Year - but the perfect storm of a weather event, health and housing has handed the opposition an open goal into which it could fire the first shots.

Fianna Fail has been struggling to get to grips with Leo Varadkar's energetic leadership since last summer.

In many ways he has been a lucky general - but then again, in politics you have to make your own luck.

He was fortunate that the blame for former Attorney General Maire Whelan's appointment to the Court of Appeal fell on Enda Kenny, and that opposition parties are notoriously wary about getting into a row about the judiciary.

The Taoiseach took a calculated risk to stand by Frances Fitzgerald when everybody else, including most in his own party, could see that for better or worse she had to go.

It's difficult to tell whether the public respected his decision to stand by somebody he believed to a "good woman", because within days he was thumping Theresa May and Arlene Foster with the green flag.

Again, all manner of debate has been had as to whether this new-found nationalism is a healthy assertion of our independence or a moment of opportunism.

Either way it has played well, and three polls in the run-up to the holidays gave Fine Gael a significant lead over Micheal Martin's party. It might be a "Brexit Bounce" rather than a "Leo Leap" - but it is evidence that you can make your own luck.

And while Mr Martin is blue in the face telling us he doesn't pay attention to opinion polls, the trend is hard to ignore.

In an interview with the Irish Independent last week, he warned that renewal of the confidence and supply arrangement would be dependent on delivery.

In fact his full reply to the question about meeting Mr Varadkar to discuss a possible extension was: "No. No. We'll talk about delivery on this first. I haven't contemplated that yet. You're jumping too far ahead."

The Taoiseach has said he sees "no reason" why they shouldn't be allowed to pass a third Budget and then move on to planning a fourth.

Given that nobody believed they would manage three when this arrangement was born in May 2016, it's hard to imagine how this Government could go the full five-year term.

Fianna Fail can rightly claim it signed up to a strict policy document, that ensured the end of water charges and the return of things like the National Treatment Purchase Fund, because that was the best option then. But could Mr Martin really convince his troops that life in opposition is so good they shouldn't be plotting a quick return to government?

To be frank, we should be on election watch as soon as the referendum on the Eighth Amendment is out of the way.

Fianna Fail does not need to be ahead of Fine Gael when an election is called, because campaigns matter. We saw that in 2016 as their "Ireland For All" set a tone much more in tune with the people than Fine Gael's ill-judged "Keep The Recovery Going". However, Mr Martin will have to at least close the current gap, which is anywhere between 7pc-11pc, depending on which poll you believe.

The past week, when more than 600 people lay on hospital trolleys, a city was under water and homeless people were accused of "gaming the system", should have been political dynamite.

Mr Martin isn't a TD who generally engages in shouting matches or criticism for the sake of it. He is much more considered and often, to his credit, conciliatory.

But this was a week in which his party could have lit a match under Leo Varadkar.

It's a new year, the Taoiseach is abroad meeting the populist leader of Hungary - and at home his two youngest ministers, Murphy and Harris, are trying to batten down the hatches after the predictable storms have hit.

Press releases are not necessarily a good measure of political response. There's an argument for quality over quantity - but it's interesting to note that Fianna Fail sent out 10 releases this week. That's one more than Sinn Fein and two fewer than the Labour Party.

The first came last Tuesday, from health spokesman Billy Kelleher, who described the mismanagement of the A&E crisis as having been "blatantly exposed".

"Minister Harris and his predecessors Leo Varadkar and James Reilly all pledged to tackle overcrowding, but the reality is the situation is getting worse, not better," he said.

Only 20 minutes after that came one from housing spokesman Barry Cowen, who was "shocked by the crude comments" (about "gaming the system") from Housing Agency chair Conor Skehan. Last Friday, Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy reappointed Mr Skehan for another year.

There were no further dispatches from Fianna Fail HQ on either housing or health, though notes were issued on topics such as the floods, the Dundalk stabbing and broadband.

In that same interview Mr Martin said Leo Varadkar now funnels the "largest propaganda budget of any prime minister's office in Europe" through his strategic communications unit. But even that can't control the weather, the hospital crisis or the housing lists - and Fianna Fail would do well to remember that.

If Leo Varadkar has managed to make his own luck, Fianna Fail must ensure bad weeks for the Government are not allowed to simply pass by. Otherwise they won't be renegotiating the confidence and supply arrangement for two more years - because Fine Gael will have gone to the country looking for five more.

Sunday Independent

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