Monday 25 March 2019

Laura Larkin: 'Parties have one eye on calendar as they remain in election holding pattern'

  

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin. Photo: Damien Eagers
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin. Photo: Damien Eagers
Laura Larkin

Laura Larkin

A Brexit delay has been put firmly on the agenda but as Theresa May scrambles to revive her deal there will be some here with an eye on the House of Commons and another on the calendar, musing over the timing of a general election.

The infamous baby that is Brexit has been used as an excuse to continue the marriage of convenience between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.

In stark contrast to what has been playing out in the UK, Irish politicians have largely put the national interest first - at least until Brexit is old enough to understand why the pair must split.

But what happens to that mature approach if the Brexit timetable shifts? The shape of the delay - and it may be next week before it crystallises - will be all important.

The option being pursued by Mrs May is a technical extension. That is possible if the House of Commons ratifies the divorce deal and could see Brexit give way for some breathing room in Irish politics.

An election is unofficially pencilled in for spring next year - right in the middle of the next phase of negotiations on the UK's future relationship with Europe. Ireland will want a powerful hand in the negotiations and the timing of an election will need to be cognisant of that.

A longer delay, however, leaves things a bit more fluid and there will be some careful calibrating being done in the backrooms of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has never been chosen as leader of the country by the electorate. He has always been viewed as someone who wants to go to the country and seek a mandate.

But it is difficult for him to engineer an election without appearing to be going to the country out of self-interest - his popularity has been sliding but overall the numbers are steady for Fine Gael.

But Fianna Fáil is looking at the same numbers and for now it suggests there wouldn't be much of a shift in the parliamentary arithmetic.

More pressing than that is the jostling between the two parties to be crowned as 'Ireland's Most Responsible Political Party'.

Fine Gael came to power positioning itself as the antidote to Fianna Fáil's reckless handling of the economy. The Children's Hospital cost debacle has damaged its image as the party of prudence.

Meanwhile, in Fianna Fáil there has been no small amount of rebranding in recent years and Micheál Martin is at pains to pitch the party as one that is responsible and that keeps promises - and he has pledged no election until 2020.

If there is a substantial Brexit delay he may find himself regretting it if those in the party who are sympathetic towards the need to underpin the Government found themselves agreeing with their colleagues who say Confidence and Supply is dead.

Not for the first time since the formation of this Government will the events across the water in the coming days have a real impact on what comes next in Irish politics.

Irish Independent

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