Shift in political gear means election is approaching
Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are scouting for additional candidates
Fianna Fáil leader, Micheal Martin: has told his frontbench TDs to be much more assertive. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
The fourth floor of the modern annex to Leinster House is where the journey from Opposition to Government Buildings is plotted.
Up there, overlooking Leinster Lawn – the sweep of green between Merrion Street and the official, but less used, entrance to Leinster House – the leader of the main Opposition party keeps a suite of offices.
The current occupant, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, operates a tight ship. The TDs on the floors below often complain – as most TDs in all parties do – that the leader and his operation keep them in the dark about planning, strategy and where the party is heading.
However, with the confidence and supply agreement entering its final months, those on the floors below Martin cannot help but search for straws in the wind.
An example of recent weeks includes Fianna Fáil staffers from the fourth floor dropping into TDs, asking for whatever policies they have been working on for inclusion in a general election manifesto.
It does not mean, however, that Martin is preparing for an election immediately. The word from the fourth floor, as TDs often characterise whatever vibes they divine from the leader’s office, is that they want the third and final budget to pass in October.
Yet most in both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil instinctively know an election is coming as the confidence and supply agreement concludes with that third and final budget. Fine Gael is talking about renewing the deal, but almost nobody believes it will be extended.
Nobody wants to be blamed for the election’s calling, however, and the two major parties will come to resemble political sumo wrestlers in the months ahead, trying to push each other over a line of culpability.
This touchiness extends to anything that hints at even getting ready for an election. When asked about manifesto preparation, a senior Fianna Fáil figure immediately retorted that Fine Gael were doing the same with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s “Republic of Opportunity” document, published last November.
Before Christmas, when the country was brought to the brink of an election, Fianna Fáil seemed better prepared. Out of government, the leadership can perhaps devote more energies towards such an end than those in power.
Fianna Fáil strategists had long wanted to have most, if not all, election selection conventions completed by this spring and are largely on track. Of 39 constituencies, only a handful are outstanding.
For the national constituencies committee, work has mainly turned to tweaking tickets – assessing and adding candidates, if needed.
Recent weeks have seen former TD Charlie O’Connor picked to run alongside sitting deputy John Lahart in Dublin South West. Dublin city Councillor Deirdre Heney has been added in Dublin Bay North to run with Sean Haughey, a reprise of the party ticket from the 2016 general election. Councillor Pádraig O’Sullivan has also joined TD Kevin O’Keeffe on the party ticket in Cork East, too.
Quietly satisfiedFine Gael is also scouting for additional candidates, and party insiders are quietly satisfied with the recent recruitment of former Independent, Mallow-based councillor John Paul O’Shea. O’Shea has been slated to stand with Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed in Cork North West, a bellwether constituency in which Fianna Fáil currently holds two of the three seats, although he will still have to come through the constituency convention.
O’Shea’s recruitment has caused some unease locally, with former TD Áine Collins – who wants to stand again – claiming she has been betrayed. While Fianna Fáil added O’Connor in Tallaght, Fine Gael needs a second candidate in Dublin South West, where it feels it left a seat behind at the last election. There is loose talk in some quarters of asking Minister for Children Katherine Zappone, an Independent TD in the constituency, to join Fine Gael.
Varadkar’s ticket in Dublin West has not yet been settled, with councillor Ted Leddy already declaring he will contest the convention. Senator Catherine Noone stood alongside Varadkar at the last election and another councillor, Kieran Dennison, may also contest the convention.
Another of those mentioned in Fine Gael circles as a possible running mate for the Taoiseach, local activist William Maher, travelled to Washington last week with Varadkar’s party.
Nevertheless, Fine Gael is behind Fianna Fáil in holding conventions, although party sources say three quarters should be completed by June.
There is not, say insiders, the same sense of urgency that was apparent in 2010 or 2015, ahead of the elections of 2011 and 2016.
“It isn’t the same as it was in 2010 or 2015,” says one source. “But we are farther along the road with candidates. There are still some difficult calls to be made.”
There is “an unofficial view that we need to get ready” with identifying additional candidates the “most important thing”.
The party political focus, as of now, is on the performance of the Government which, it is argued, is no bad thing given the good health of the economy and how well Varadkar and his colleagues are received by voters.
ReferendumFine Gael as a party will not take an official position in the referendum on the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution and acquaintances of Varadkar say he views 2018 in two separate compartments: referendum day on May 25th, and everything thereafter.
For many in Fianna Fáil, the ideal is an election taking next spring once all legislation giving effect to the budget passes.
But some in Fine Gael are alive to the danger of their extreme minority government being at the mercy of Fianna Fáil throughout next winter – with its attendant health and housing crises – and without the security blanket of a confidence and supply deal.
One senior party source says it would be “crazy to wait” for an election that is coming anyway, and indicated there are differing views at the top of the party.
“The pull of government is a very strong thing and already I feel some feeling that we should keep possession as long as possible,” the source said. “That it won’t be any easier for Fianna Fáil to pull down when confidence and supply lapses and we get to September 2019.”
The increasing bitterness in exchanges between Varadkar and Martin in recent weeks led many in Fine Gael to believe the Government will not survive much past the autumn, even if a budget is passed.
FlexingGovernment figures believe Fianna Fáil is flexing its muscles – on vulture funds and on the strategic communications unit – and they expect more rows in the coming months. Indeed, at one of their first meetings of the year, Martin told his frontbench TDs to be much more assertive.
The rising tension also underlines once more that the next election will be a return to the Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil slugfests of old. Fine Gael’s own internal polling is in line with national trends, with Varadkar’s party in the early 30s and Fianna Fáil the mid-to-late 20s.
“They are not going away,” said a Fine Gael source of the old adversary. “They are polling well and if the election was held tomorrow, they’d win seats. It’ll be Fine Gael versus Fianna Fáil. Everyone else will be everyone else.”
Fianna Fáil says its own polling shows the two parties close, although TDs concede that there is a public curiosity with Varadkar, and that he is personally popular.
The Taoiseach correctly diagnosed recent attacks over the strategic communications unit as an effort to dent that popularity. Expect more of the same between now and polling day, whenever it comes, and whoever is blamed for causing the election.
After meeting senior party figures as part of their own personal preparations, Fianna Fáil candidates leave with the impression that the contest is approaching, even if nothing is explicitly said.
“Certainly the top floor wants to be ready,” said one Fianna Fáil TD. “There is definitely a shift in gears.”