Political Notebook: The real reason FF will not claim the head of Garda Commissioner
As predicted here last month, Simon Coveney (and Fine Gael) has caved in on water charges, the finer details of which will be officially revealed this week.
It gives me no particular pleasure to mark the spot of his defeat. Coveney fought an honourable fight, but, in the end, he had to bow to the political reality.
The end of water charges was inevitable. What is more intriguing is the manoeuvre within Fine Gael last weekend which had the appearance of an attempt to sabotage the deal finally arrived at under what was, by all accounts, the able chairmanship of Independent Senator Padraig O Ceidigh.
We pause here to reiterate that every aspect of politics here at the moment, for some time now, since the last election indeed, is dominated by two things - everything - which are when Enda Kenny will resign as Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach, who will replace him, and when will Micheal Martin pull the plug and cause the next election.
I say the appearance to sabotage the deal when really what happened was more a power play in the Fine Gael leadership shenanigans.
I talk, of course, of a letter released by Brian Hayes, the Fine Gael MEP, last Sunday morning in which European Commissioner for the Environment, Karmenu Vella, stated that simply imposing fines for wasteful usage of water "may" not be enough to address our water infrastructure problems.
Now, this could be seen as Mr Hayes taking it upon himself to ascertain the views of the Environment Commissioner for the assistance and benefit of the Oireachtas committee which Mr O Ceidigh chairs; or it could be interpreted, as many of that committee have, as a manoeuvre by Mr Hayes, at the behest of Leo Varadkar, to make agreement more difficult and, in effect, leave Mr Coveney unable to bring a unanimously supported position before the Dail, which, were that to happen, would be harmful to his leadership ambitions.
Mr Varadkar, meanwhile, made space in his not inconsiderable imagination last week to set out his position on Northern Ireland before a meeting of Fine Gael members in Goatstown, Dublin, details of which have come my way not via a "secret recording", the preferred method of communication of Mr Coveney, but through a thorough briefing, during the course of which the Social Protection Minister is understood to have said that Fine Gael "needs to take a renewed interest in the North".
Quite what Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan would make of this is anybody's guess, what with him having to regularly issue statements espousing "partnership, equality and mutual respect", as is the wont of Foreign Affairs ministers in their capacity as co-guarantors of - to quote John Bruton - the effing peace process.
Mr Varadkar said Fine Gael ministers, TDs and senators engaged all the time through the North South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, but "as a party we do not".
Fine Gael needed more visits, more exchanges, and more bilaterals to rebuild contacts with Northern Ireland's political and civic society, and its business sector, he said.
So what else did he have to say? Apparently, he said he believed in a united Ireland and would "dearly love to see it occur in my lifetime", but before there could be territorial unity, there had to be unity among people. Bouncing "Ulster Protestants" into a unitary Irish state against their will would be as "grievous a wrong" as was "abandoning a large Catholic minority in the North on partition". It could lead to alienation and even a return to violence, he warned. Ho-hum.
A unitary state formed on this basis would not be a good one, he said. And so say all of us. He also said a border poll held at "any point in the near future" would be counterproductive.
Finally, no Varadkar speech would be complete without a dig at Micheal Martin: "Fianna Fail is already following Sinn Fein down the unity road, as shown by Micheal Martin's promise of a white paper on Irish unity."
For those who like to speculate on when the Fianna Fail leader will actually pull the plug, here is the answer: not any time soon, if he has his way. But events, dear boy...
This latest controversy related to the Garda Commissioner is a case in point. The pundits have so far failed to get their heads around Fianna Fail's position on being "unable" to express confidence in Noirin O'Sullivan while being unwilling to vote no confidence in her. The reason is rather simple, though. And there is precedent. Just ask Martin Callinan and Alan Shatter. Were the current Garda Commissioner to also go, the Opposition would inevitably and immediately move on to the current Justice Minister, Frances Fitzgerald.
Remember, she has admitted she first became aware that the gardai had doubled by a million the number of motorist breathalyser tests when it was sneakily revealed at a Garda press conference. Eh, is there no back channel of communication at all open between the Department of Justice and Garda HQ these days?
In those circumstances, who could have confidence in such a minister? Well, certainly not Fianna Fail, but it has signed up to a "confidence and supply" arrangement, which means, technically, it must back Ms Fitzgerald, or at least not vote her down.
So, in a fashion, Ms O'Sullivan is, basically, the last woman standing between Fianna Fail and a general election that Mr Martin believes the party he leads is not yet ready for. When will it be ready? In 12 months is the thinking of those closest to the leader, or after Brexit tanks the economy. Take your pick.
My bet is still on this October, after the Budget. If it goes beyond that point, those who rather cynically describe the current arrangement as an FG/FF coalition will look to have more than an arguable point.
We could take to idle speculation as to who would make the cut in a Fianna Fail-led government if that party is in government after the election, but that is for another day.
That said, should he make the Cabinet, Barry Cowen, otherwise known as "the most dangerous man in politics", according to none other than Alan Kelly, will certainly be a marked man.
Fine Gael will be desperate for its revenge. If I know Barry Cowen like I think I know Barry Cowen - and the truth is, I do not know him well at all - he will not gloat at his getting one over Mr Coveney on the water charge issue, though I would be surprised were he not to be secretly pleased.
Mr Cowen has made some curious bedfellows along the way, on this rather tortuous route to rid us of the charge - not least Paul Murphy and Brendan Ogle. He is said to be on texting terms with both men, which kind of boggles the mind. Of course, Mr Cowen scarcely rivals either as the most hated man in Fine Gael, but he has become something of a bete noire to those close to both potential leaders.
I imagine he will wear that moniker like a badge of honour, but he might be well advised to reach out between now and whenever the election is called to those in Fine Gael who have come to realise, much to their chagrin, the wisdom in Michael Noonan's assessment that Mr Cowen is one pretty sharp cookie, a view the Finance Minister is said to have arrived at during the government formation process. They said the same about the brudder, of course.
One Fianna Fail TD who has certainly covered himself in modest glory in recent weeks is the party's justice spokesman Jim O'Callaghan, who some enterprising broadcaster really should ask one day soon, not whether he has confidence in the Garda Commissioner - ultimately, it matters little whether he has or not - but whether he has confidence in the Minister for Justice.
The manner of his answer will inform the date of the election. Meanwhile, if I was in the Opposition, and really, really wanted an election - which they don't, of course - it is on Ms Fitzgerald that I would focus, who heads a government department which by now must surely rate as the new Angola, to quote the other, ahem, lesser Cowen, that being his view of the Department of Health.
Perhaps Ms Fitzgerald should start by appointing a new secretary general, and smooth out those back channels of communications. Just a thought. Then again, it may be more advisable to not want to know too much about what is coming next. That seems to be the way of it these days.