Saturday 21 September 2019

Liam Weeks: 'Martin risks the same fate that befell his 'doppelganger' Dukes'

Fianna Fail's leader has renewed his party's pact with Fine Gael in the "national interest". It could backfire on him, writes Liam Weeks

'Micheal Martin cannot afford to wait as long as most artists' Photo: Damien Eagers
'Micheal Martin cannot afford to wait as long as most artists' Photo: Damien Eagers

Liam Weeks

'When the Government is moving in the right direction, I will not oppose the central thrust of its policy. If it is going in the right direction, I do not believe that it should be deviated from its course, or tripped up on macro-economic issues.

"No other policy of opposition will conform to the real needs of the Irish people. Any other policy of opposition would amount simply to a cynical exploitation of short-term political opportunities for a political advantage which would inevitably prove to be equally short-lived. I will not play that game."

You might be forgiven for thinking these to be the words of Micheal Martin last week, when he announced the extension of Fianna Fail's confidence and supply agreement with Fine Gael until 2020.

They are, in fact, from a speech given by Alan Dukes, when he was leader of Fine Gael, to the Tallaght Chamber of Commerce in September 1987. Dukes was announcing a new policy, unbeknownst to his own party in Opposition, of supporting the then Fianna Fail minority government from the outside.

This came to be known as the "Tallaght strategy", a new departure that surprised many on both sides of the fence, as it broke the rules of civil war politics.

It was supposedly set in stone that Fine Gael didn't support Fianna Fail, and Fianna Fail didn't support Fine Gael. Simple.

But Dukes argued to the assembled business interests that "the reality of Irish life today requires the Opposition to accept responsibility. It also places an obligation on Government to listen".

"I am taking this approach," Dukes said, "because I believe that it is the kind of politics which we need and is relevant to the condition of the Irish people today. I have been struck by the extraordinarily destructive effect of old-style opposition over the last five years."

Although Dukes knew this strategy was bound to attract criticism from internal opponents within Fine Gael, he believed it important to prioritise national over party interests: "I am taking this approach because it is constructive.

"I am taking it because I believe that it is in the interests of the Irish people."

Dukes proved correct in his forecast, as the Tallaght strategy gave Fianna Fail and its finance minister, Ray 'Mack the Knife' MacSharry, the wriggle room to impose the taxation and expenditure cuts necessary to restructure the State's crippling finances.

This ultimately proved an important element in constructing the foundations on which the economic growth of the Celtic Tiger years was built.

But Dukes got little thanks for this. At the 1989 general election, Fine Gael won back just two of the 12 percentage points of support and four of the 19 seats it had lost in 1987.

The following year, the party had a disastrous presidential election, receiving its lowest ever national vote, as its candidate Austin Currie (who had been Dukes's choice) was eliminated on the first count. Dukes resigned as Fine Gael leader a few weeks later, less than three years into the job.

With Micheal Martin pursuing a strategy similar to Alan Dukes in supporting a minority Fine Gael government, is it possible that Martin is the new Dukes, his very own doppelganger?

A doppelganger is someone bearing a strong resemblance to another person to whom they are not related.

If we examine much of what Micheal Martin is doing now, it is strikingly comparable to the policies pursued by Alan Dukes 30 years previously.

Consider the text of Martin's Dail statement last week, and the similarities to what Dukes said in his Tallaght speech: "We simply do not believe that the national interest could in any way be served by taking up to four months during next year to schedule and hold an election campaign and then form a government.

"With business and communities already fearful about the impact of Brexit and with Ireland manifestly not ready for many of the potential outcomes, how could it possibly be in the national interest to have extended political uncertainty next year?

"In normal times," Martin outlined, "there would be no issue. An election now would be the right thing for our country. However these are not normal times."

So, like Dukes in the 1980s, Martin claims to be putting the interests of the nation before his party. But, will either thank him for it?

"It is a pain in the backside. We are grinning and bearing it, to be honest," said one chief apparatchik within Fianna Fail last year.

Last week, backbench TD John McGuinness said Micheal Martin's approach is being described as the 'cowardice and surrender' agreement.

While Fianna Fail can take credit for providing stability for Leo Varadkar and Fine Gael, the party's position outside the tent means that it cannot claim responsibility for any of the Government's successful policies.

It is just as how one Fine Gael backbencher from the Dukes era recalled the 1987-89 period: "You were taking responsibility for something you had no control over. The Government didn't tell us too much, but we still had to accept responsibility for the decisions."

If the economy continues to grow, all the international evidence indicates that it is governments who benefit electorally from prosperity. No one remembers the minority partners who put them in power.

So, during the two years of the Tallaght strategy, Fine Gael fell in the opinion polls while Fianna Fail rose, prompting its leader Charlie Haughey to call an election in June 1989 after his Government was defeated on a private member's motion. It was only the cynical nature of Haughey's calling an unnecessary election that prevented Fianna Fail from capitalising on its popularity and achieving the holy grail of an overall majority.

Although Leo Varadkar may not like the comparison, in the current era, he too, is tempted to call a snap election to maximise his party's electoral gains at a time when Fine Gael is riding high(-ish) in the polls.

Martin called the Taoiseach out on this when he rebuked his recent efforts "to find an excuse to increase instability and undermine his own Government".

We thus now have the curiouser and curiouser situation of the Government baying for an election, and the Opposition resisting these calls. Normally it is the opposite.

Martin knows he has to extract something from this current strategy, because like Dukes before him, his party is not exactly profiting from this seemingly selfless act, standing still at 25pc, the same level of support it attracted in 2016.

Just as one of Alan Dukes's motivations behind his Tallaght strategy was to buy himself some time, Micheal Martin has a similar aim, hoping that Leo Varadkar's honeymoon period will end in 2019.

Fianna Fail was the largest party after the last local elections in 2014, and if it repeats this feat next year, Martin will have an opportunity to demonstrate his leadership skills to an electorate he will be hoping will give him some credit for supporting his main rival through choppy waters.

If the experience of Dukes is anything to go by, however, Martin shouldn't be too optimistic. Looking back on his own strategy some years later, Dukes recalled: "It is sometimes said that a prophet in his own land is never listened to. Most artists get little recognition until they are dead. While I am neither a prophet nor an artist, I think I have some understanding of their plight."

Micheal Martin cannot afford to wait as long as most artists.

Dr Liam Weeks is director of the MSc Government & Politics at University College Cork

Sunday Independent

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