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Philip Ryan: 'The joke could be on Fianna Fail if it dismisses Fine Gael's political antics'

Paschal Donohoe has key role as Fine Gael's hard man if post-Brexit election speculation proves correct, writes Philip Ryan

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Paschal Donohoe. Picture: Gerry Mooney

Paschal Donohoe. Picture: Gerry Mooney

Paschal Donohoe. Picture: Gerry Mooney

Most Fianna Failers spent the week just gone laughing at Fine Gael's efforts to fill the political void before the Dail returns with election speculation.

First, Longford-Westmeath TD Peter Burke was out the blocks with his report on Fianna Fail's €3.5bn spending demands last year.

Burke decried what he called Fianna Fail's "scratchcard economics" and insisted the party should carefully cost all future spending demands.

Fianna Fail took the bait and so we were forced to endure a debate between Burke and Fianna Fail's Thomas Byrne on RTE Radio 1's Morning Ireland. The tired, on-air political scrap was as believable as a 1990s Wrestlemania title fight. There will be a lot of this in the coming months so try feign interest.

But, in saying that, Fianna Fail has a tendency to weigh in behind any interest group seeking a sip from the fountain of the Exchequer.

You only need to show up outside the Dail with a placard making some sort of a demand for cash and Micheal Martin is likely to mention you during Leader's Questions.

Anyway, after the silly radio row it emerged Fine Gael was organising a special parliamentary party meeting ahead of the new Dail term. And it wasn't just for TDs, senators and MEPs.

Recently selected general election candidates who are not members of the Oireachtas were also told to be in attendance to hear an address from Fine Gael's new election hard-man Paschal Donohoe.

Yes, Prudent Paschal is Fine Gael's director of organisation, which to all intent and purposes means he is the party's director of elections for the next general election.

A previous incumbent of the role was the original Fine Gael political bruiser Phil Hogan. Donohoe may not have the political gravitas of Hogan just yet but he has navigated the party through some treacherous budgetary debates and is well used to saying no to his colleagues when they come knocking with the begging bowl.

But constituency politics is an entirely different game and he will no longer be in the safe surrounding of his office on Merrion Street with his Star Wars toys.

Some in the party are wary of the appointment, with one minister saying: "Will Paschal even know the candidates' names?" Possibly unfair, but there is a view the Finance Minister is somewhat removed from the cut and thrust of grassroots politics.

But back to the main point: Fine Gael stoking election tensions before the Dail returns. Without doubt preparations for a snap election have continued unabated in both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail. The attitude is that if any sort of Brexit deal is struck then all bets are off. All this playing happy families in the national interest stuff is out the window.

This is especially the case for many in Fine Gael where there are even some hoping for a general election in May on the same day as the European and local elections.

There is little chance of this happening and there is no appetite in the senior ranks of either party for such a scenario. But that is not to say you can dismiss the idea entirely.

Interestingly, one of Donohoe's first moves in his new role was to instruct all Cabinet ministers to visit a designated constituency in the next three months.

"The constituency visit will be organised through the (Fine Gael) regional organiser and must be undertaken before the end of March 2019," the email read.

The end of March, of course, also being the same time when the Brexit withdrawal agreement is supposed to kick in. Whether this happens is another thing altogether.

But let's say that by some miracle of faith Theresa May does get her delinquent parliament to sign off on the proposed EU exit deal or even gets an extension on when she needs to reach a decision.

Micheal Martin's Brexit cover will be blown and there will be no excuse for propping up Fine Gael any longer.

Fianna Fail and Fine Gael would like to use the local and European elections as a bellwether to gauge their national support.

Varadkar and Fine Gael are the underdogs going into the local elections and have a huge amount of ground to make up after losing more than 100 seats in 2014. So consequently the pressure is actually on Micheal Martin.

The focus in Fianna Fail has been on rebuilding the party's standing in local communities since Martin was appointed leader. It worked five years ago but expansion will depend on how deep they can cut into Sinn Fein's ground machine.

There is an impression Fine Gael is not focused on the locals and is more distracted by the seemingly endless preparations for a general election. There is a belief they cannot do any worse than 2014, but they could.

Fianna Fail, meanwhile, may laugh at Fine Gael's political antics but the joke might be on Micheal Martin and his party if Varadkar does decide to pull the plug if Brexit is parked for a significant length of time.

Sunday Independent