Brexit drives the agenda but Fine Gael keeps focus on the domestic
Varadkar uses televised conference speech to slam rivals and present election credentials
Brexit was everywhere during Fine Gael’s national conference in Wexford at the weekend. The issue featured in just about every conversation, which was always going to be the way given the narrowing timeline and the lack of clarity about what will happen.
But a number of elections are also just around the corner - local and European for sure, and likely a general - and the State’s largest party was looking to position itself very clearly ahead of them.
The key themes of the conference - and of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s televised speech - were decidedly domestic and there was no shortage of old-fashioned Punch and Judy-style potshots at Fine Gael’s electoral rivals.
Fianna Fáil, which is currently preventing the Government scrum from collapsing, was dismissed as an empty vessel as Varadkar hit back at Micheál Martin’s waspish prose from his own ardfheis speech last month.
“Fianna Fáil is a party with no ideas, no policies, no alternatives,” Varadkar said. “I’m sorry Micheál, but hurling from the ditch isn’t a policy, conspiracy theories don’t constitute analysis, and finger wagging isn’t a solution.”
The most withering criticism was reserved for Sinn Féin, a party which Varadkar made clear he views as anti-democratic and unfit for government.
“The bigger problem I have is that the values of Sinn Féin are toxic,” he said. “They don’t respect our courts, they don’t respect our gardaí, they don’t respect any of the four parliaments they are elected to, including the ones they turn up for, they don’t respect our democracy.”
It was no shock to hear Varadkar say that Fine Gael, just like Fianna Fáil, would not enter a coalition with Sinn Féin under any circumstances.
However, unless there is a seismic change in voter sentiment over the next 12 months, there will not be a huge gap between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, and Sinn Féin will remain the third largest party.
With Sinn Féin excluded, the possibilities for forming a government immediately narrow and there is little appetite for another confidence and supply deal. That suggests the State is destined for something very unstable, or another election in the near future.
Brexit gave Varadkar perhaps the best lines in his speech.
“Brexit will define and consume the United Kingdom for the next generation. It doesn’t have to define us,” he said. “We are in control of our destiny, and have the power to build a better future for all of our citizens.”
The conference attracted a few name from outside the Fine Gael ranks also. The DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson came to defend his party’s pro-Brexit stance - and even got a ripple of applause when he invited Ireland to join the Commonwealth. It created a small bit of media frisson but Tánaiste Simon Coveney quickly dismissed such a proposal as not being on the party’s agenda.
German MEP Manfred Weber was also a distinguished guest. As the candidate of the European People’s Party, to which Fine Gael is aligned, he is the favourite to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker as the next president of the European Commission. Weber said there would be “continuity solidarity” for Ireland from the commission should he take up the role.
On the domestic front, Varadkar pointed out Fine Gael’s achievements over eight years in government and repeated his promise to move the top rate income tax band to €50,000.
He set out five broad themes that would be focused on - a strong economy; social inclusion; the completion of capital projects; Irish foreign policy; and tackling climate change. There were promises of more paid parental leave; the roll-out of the Sláintecare health model; and delivering better broadband — but nothing that was brand new.
Intriguingly, one line of the leader’s speech was changed very late in the day. Varadkar initially was to tell the delegates there would be an election between now and the summer of 2020. That was changed to between now and 2021.
That insertion was cosmetic. Nobody believes this Government will run its full term. Indeed, given what happened in Brussels last Thursday, a lot of attention is fixed on early September, after the local and European elections but before the budget.