Opinion

Thursday 22 August 2019

Martin set to lose as Varadkar doesn't follow the usual rules

It's all over for the odd couple, but the divorce settlement could cost one of the spouses far more, writes Ed Brophy

Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin. Picture; Gerry Mooney
Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin. Picture; Gerry Mooney

Ed Brophy

Soon after Joan Burton became Tanaiste, I made sure to spend time with the Labour backroom people who had been present for the collapse of the coalition with Fianna Fail in 1994. Right from the start, it was clear that Joan's relationship with Enda Kenny was never going to be as harmonious as that which he had enjoyed with Eamon Gilmore. Many on the Fine Gael side were sceptical whether the Government could last. I wanted to know what lessons we could learn from the divorce of an even odder couple - Dick Spring and Albert Reynolds. And what processes could we put in place to prevent a similar breakdown of Joan and Enda's relationship?

In all my conversations, a single phrase kept recurring - "no surprises". Neither side could ever be blindsided by the other such that trust was lost - even when it came to what Albert famously referred to as the "little things".

In place of a strong relationship between the principals, it was critical that the respective backrooms worked the 'no surprises' policy to the letter of the law. Following this approach, we got to the finishing line intact and managed to do some good things along the way.

This weekend, the marriage of convenience between that other odd couple, Leo Varadkar and Micheal Martin, is over, irrespective of whether there is an election before or after Christmas. There is no reasonable prospect of a reconciliation between the spouses. And the wedding rite - more commonly known as Confidence and Supply - is sundered beyond repair and may even be dispensed with for good.

In the end, it came down to two surprises. Varadkar didn't think that Martin would breach Confidence and Supply by backing a motion of no confidence in his Tanaiste, Frances Fitzgerald; equally, Fianna Fail never expected Varadkar to hang tough when the Opposition came looking for the Tanaiste's head on a plate. Of the two, Varadkar's surprise was more - for want of a better word - surprising.

Varadkar has confounded Fianna Fail since he became Taoiseach. He doesn't fit within the limited typologies of previous taoisigh. So Fianna Fail has lapsed into caricature, labelling him an out-of-touch right-wing elitist. And yet there he was at last week's EU social summit eulogising the European social market economy and sounding for all the world 'a bit to the left' like Martin. Turn next to Fine Gael's recent Republic of Opportunity document and it's all mainstream European Christian Democracy - a generous but contributory welfare state, a strong focus on rights and responsibilities and deep integration into the core of the EU.

Like Emmanuel Macron, Varadkar really means it when he says that he's neither left nor right. However, for Fianna Fail, he remains, as Churchill famously said of Russia, a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.

Looking at Varadkar through the lens of politics as usual, Martin fully expected him to sacrifice his Tanaiste to preserve his Government. I did too, as did most political commentators. After all, those are the rules of the game as it has traditionally been played. Just ask Alan Shatter, ditched by Kenny for political expediency and subsequently exonerated after his political career had been destroyed.

Varadkar never had any intention of following this script. As Pat Leahy astutely observed in the Irish Times, no previous Taoiseach has chosen to sacrifice his Government to save one of his ministers and yet here was Varadkar doing exactly that. Not playing within the accepted parameters naturally makes those whose political horizon extends no further nervous.

What lies behind Varadkar's unorthodox determination to defend his Tanaiste at all costs? After all, he was let down badly by her former department and found himself in a position no Taoiseach would wish for of inadvertently misleading the Dail. Remember too that Varadkar came of age as a politician in standing up for Maurice McCabe and other Garda whistleblowers at the height of the Callinan and Shatter affair. The Tanaiste's omissions had the potential to do real damage to his reputation.

By refusing to throw Fitzgerald under a bus, we have learned a considerable amount more than we previously knew about our young Taoiseach.

Earlier last week, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe wrote an erudite paean to the great liberal political theorist Isaiah Berlin, in which he drew particular attention to the relevance of Berlin's lifelong advocacy of pluralism to our contemporary politics. Not discussed in Donohoe's piece was Berlin's strong belief that pluralism is ultimately incompatible with utilitarianism - the view that the means justify the ends. Coincidentally, Varadkar's refusal to sacrifice Fitzgerald as a means to the end of enabling the Government to survive was entirely consistent with Berlin's view that people must, under all circumstances, be treated as ends in themselves. This, to put it mildly, goes against the grain of conventional political wisdom.

Will any of this have any practical impact? Don't be surprised if it does. When the election is called, Fianna Fail will find it hard to explain exactly why we are going to the polls.

Varadkar, on the other hand, will have a simple story that he was not prepared to sacrifice a decent woman purely for political expediency.

Whatever way you look at it, it is hard to see how any of the post-election scenarios play particularly well for Martin. If Fianna Fail ends up with a few more seats than Fine Gael and seeks support for confidence and supply, Varadkar will have very strong grounds for refusing this on the basis that Fianna Fail has just proven that such arrangements don't work. Faced with this, Fianna Fail may have no option but to talk to Sinn Fein, with predictable consequences for Martin's leadership.

By the same token, if Fine Gael were to lead after the election, it is likely that the only option that Varadkar would offer Fianna Fail is a grand coalition and confirmation that Martin will be the first Fianna Fail leader never to be Taoiseach.

As Martin contemplates his options this weekend, the thought just might cross his mind that pulling back from the brink could be more in his interest than in Varadkar's.

  • Ed Brophy was Chief of Staff to former Tanaiste Joan Burton

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