Saturday 19 October 2019

Kevin Doyle: 'Whisper in the Dáil chamber sealed the deal as Martin took moral high ground'


Decision: Micheál Martin said he had to put ‘stability and the national interest’ first. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Decision: Micheál Martin said he had to put ‘stability and the national interest’ first. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

With all eyes on London, Micheál Martin sidled up to Leo Varadkar in the Dáil chamber with the latest breaking news.

This one hadn't made Twitter yet. He was going to extend the Confidence and Supply Arrangement for another year.

Around the same time a text message was sent out to Fianna Fáil TDs inviting them to join the leader for an important announcement.

A few journalists were tipped off to watch the normally inoffensive and predictable pre-European Council statements.

On Tuesday, Mr Martin had complained that the 10-minute slot given to each of the party leaders for the debate wasn't enough, but nobody twigged the significance of his gripe.

The 'deal' was hammered out that night when the two leaders and their advisors met in secret. But in a clear sign that there is a still a vacuum of trust between the two, the Fianna Fáil leader didn't outline his full plan.

It wasn't until both men were inside the sanctum of the Dáil chamber yesterday afternoon that he gave the Taoiseach a "heads up" that a deal was definitely on.

The speed with which he made his move may have been influenced by the destructive forces at play in Westminster.

One source described the thinking as "calm now, country first and feck the rest".

When he took to his feet, Mr Martin spent a considerable time building up to his bold revelation.

He talked about the uncertainty, about the problems in housing and health, and about how his troops had ignored "many provocations" from Fine Gael in recent months.

"There has been no talk from us about oiling printers or careless talk about elections in the middle of sensitive negotiations," he said. "In normal times there would be no issue. An election now would be the right thing for our country."

But what is normal any more? Before dawn had even broken, Theresa May had cancelled a flight to Dublin in order to battle a no-confidence motion.

The British establishment is fighting itself on the beaches, on the international airwaves and in the corridors of power.

The odds of the UK crashing out of the EU are rising with every passing day.

Mr Martin summed it up nicely: "While Prime Minister May works to salvage the current deal she is confronted with a political class which has descended into open warfare between angry factions."

So he had to put "stability and the national interest" first and give Mr Varadkar another year in power.

The price of confidence and supply is what surprised everybody afterwards. Like sterling, the value of power has plummeted since 2016.

Last night, Mr Martin was repeatedly asked by journalists what he had secured in return for sacrificing an election.

Reporters were so unsure about the answer that they later had to confirm with Tánaiste Simon Coveney that the deal included no 'easy wins' or budgetary buy-offs for Fianna Fáil.

One Fine Gael figure said they were stunned at the lack of demands, musing that Mr Martin will have some job explaining the 'free trade deal' to his backbenches.

But the Fianna Fáil hierarchy see it differently. The proposal is that the next election will be in February or March 2020.

That is on the basis that Brexit drags on - but if it doesn't Mr Martin has left himself enough room to pivot.

The minority Government now exists purely because of Brexit.

If the Brexit clock is stopped or by some miracle the Withdrawal Agreement is passed, then the rules change.

Had Fianna Fáil sought a list of commitments there would have been an obligation to see them through.

The dynamics of the next budget have changed too. Both sides went into last October's negotiations knowing that they couldn't go nuclear. The Brexit scenario, which was at a different stage of paralysis, meant they had to be sensible.

All sides hope that by next autumn things will have settled. "It'll be like the Battle of Clontarf," said a Fianna Fáil source.

Mr Martin is correct in his assessment that the "only thing which is clear is that no one has the faintest idea what the course of Brexit will be".

But for the moment, he'll be watching nervously from the moral high ground.

Irish Independent

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