Monday 14 October 2019

Martin backs FG into a very reasonable but uneasy corner


Micheál Martin. Photo: Tony Gavin
Micheál Martin. Photo: Tony Gavin
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

For once Micheál Martin has the Taoiseach right where he wants him: trapped.

Since Leo Varadkar took over as leader of Fine Gael, he has always appeared to be one step ahead of his more experienced rival. The Taoiseach's ability to spin, to set the agenda and to ride high in the polls despite the housing crisis is deeply frustrating for not just the Fianna Fáil leader but also most of his troops.

Over the summer Mr Varadkar tried to kill speculation that he was looking for an excuse to run to the country by seeking a new confidence and supply deal that would run until 2020.

The move infuriated Fianna Fáil, which always insisted that no "review" of its temporary little arrangement should take place until after Budget 2019.

No sooner was Tuesday's Budget over than both men began arguing over how long the negotiations should take. Fine Gael set a Halloween deadline. Fianna Fáil said there was no panic.

Then Denis Naughten became the third supporter of the Government to walk off the pitch in a fortnight, and the rules shifted again.

All the arrows pointed to a pre-Christmas election as power ebbed away from Mr Varadkar.

Such is the nature of Irish politics right now, that this would actually have suited the incumbent better than the man vying for his job.

But just as an election was looming on the horizon, Mr Martin put pen to paper and once more the direction of travel changed.

He made an offer that is too good to refuse. Fianna Fáil will permit Mr Varadkar to remain in office until the messy Brexit negotiations have concluded.

It was a very sensible and reasonable proposal, which will also allow Mr Martin to boast that he has put the national interest first.

By effectively putting normal politics aside while Brexit reaches its inglorious peak, Mr Martin will dilute Mr Varadkar's ability to claim the final deal is his victory. The Government could not have achieved it without Fianna Fáil.

Of course, Brexit is not the only reason that there shouldn't be an election now.

The Social Welfare Bill (with its €5 pension hikes) will go before the Dáil in November and the Finance Bill (with its income tax cuts) should pass in December.

The legislation to allow for abortion is also due to work its way through the Houses in the coming weeks. An election would derail all of this.

So Mr Varadkar has found himself backed into a corner, which wouldn't be a huge deal under the circumstances - except that the suspicion in Fine Gael all along was that Mr Martin is plotting for an election in the first quarter of next year when the trolley numbers are bad, and the homeless are cold.

There's still a bit of cuteness left in Fianna Fáil.

Irish Independent

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