Decision time for Fianna Fáil: reshuffle, renegotiate, get re-elected?

After poor party poll results, Micheál Martin begins 2018 on the back foot

Micheál Martin  is a cautious politician and will not want to needlessly make enemies. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Micheál Martin is a cautious politician and will not want to needlessly make enemies. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Between here and summer, political argument above ground will be dominated by abortion. Below, the tectonic plates will be moving in anticipation of the next election.

The confidence and supply deal that sees Fianna Fáil underpin the Fine Gael minority government is coming to an end, although nobody is sure exactly how and when it will elapse.

Leo Varadkar has spoken about extending it past the final budget of the arrangement, due next October, but Micheál Martin and his TDs refuse to entertain the Taoiseach’s entreaties. They want delivery on two key policy areas – health and housing – before even considering fresh negotiations.

Varadkar’s offer, made over Christmas, was always going to come at some stage this year. That the Taoiseach held out his hand against the backdrop of favourable polls added to the picture of a politician in command of the political weather.

The last Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll, taken at the height of the Government’s success on phase one of the Brexit negotiations in early December, put Fine Gael on 36 per cent and Fianna Fáil on 25 per cent, the biggest poll lead for Varadkar’s party since 2015.

Another two polls have since borne out these findings. Although the gap between the two was narrower, the trend was unmistakable.

Questions have begun to be asked about the effectiveness of his front bench. Many within the parliamentary party believe the leader should reshuffle his team

Martin and Fianna Fáil enter 2018 on the back foot. Questions have begun to be asked about the effectiveness of his front bench. Many within the parliamentary party believe the leader should reshuffle his team.

Unkind eyes and words are cast towards those perceived to be not pulling their weight. The astute operators in Fianna Fáil know they are now in a fight, and cannot afford to carry passengers.

With Varadkar in the first flush of leadership at a time of economic growth, Fianna Fáil is up against a tougher opponent than the Enda Kenny of the 2016 general election, when public fatigue with years of austerity was catastrophically misread by Fine Gael.

“It’s a different operation now. He’s very sharp, very clever, very astute,” says a Fianna Fáil source of Varadkar. “You’d expect that from a politician of the new generation.”

Some first-time TDs elected in 2016 claim Martin is too loyal to the class of 2011, the 20 or so TDs who made it back to Leinster House after the party’s post-bailout electoral massacre.

But talk of a reshuffle – or at least changing the way the frontbench operates – is growing, and one deputy of the new intake says Martin must realise he has to “end the political careers” of some.

Martin is a cautious politician and will not want to needlessly make enemies. Although such grumbling is commonplace in a party with ambitious people, those on the frontbench acknowledge that they need to step up and assist their leader, who is still head and shoulders above everyone else in the party.

Concern should not be mistaken for panic, however. Those who experienced the nadir between 2011 and 2016 – when Fianna Fáil was effectively a rump opposition in a Dáil teeming with Fine Gael and Labour deputies – say the years of famine instilled calm.

“There is no sense of panic. There is no need to panic,” says one who experienced that era. “You’ve got to roll back to between 2011 and 2016. That taught us not to panic.”

Another said opinion polls cannot be disregarded and should be respected – but should not become a distraction. Varadkar’s poll lead is treated with scepticism by some.

Leo Varadkar got his mini-moon when he took over, and now he’s had his honeymoon. We’ll be back in the Dáil next week and Micheál is going to hammer him on health

“He got his mini-moon when he took over, and now he’s had his honeymoon,” says a frontbencher. “That too will subside. We’ll be back in the Dáil next week and Micheál is going to hammer him on health.”

Martin will highlight Varadkar’s tenure as Minister of Health, sources say, and it is claimed any ripostes from the Taoiseach about the Fianna Fáil leader’s time in the Department between 2000 and 2004 will be seen as a petulant rehashing of history.

Although Fianna Fáil is marking the ground on which it wants to fight the election, campaigns take on a character of their own. As leader of the Opposition, Enda Kenny wanted to fight the 2007 election on the health services. As leader of the government, he wanted the fight in 2016 to be on the economy.

On both occasions, the public disagreed. It chose the economy as its main issue in 2007 and public services in 2016.

Fianna Fáil figures place great emphasis on their constituency operations and the importance of candidate selections. Top line figures in national polls, it is argued, will not detect support for a solid if unglamorous candidate who is well placed to pick up a seat.

An example is Joe Flaherty, who is standing in Longford-Westmeath. Flaherty is managing director of a local newspaper group and is embedded in his community. A similar approach was used at the last election, when Eugene Murphy, the former host of the mid-morning show on Shannonside Radio, stood and won in Roscommon-Galway.

Fianna Fáil will also begin to roll out its election policy platform in the coming months to ensure the public is familiar with its offering whenever the election comes.

Sources in Fine Gael say that if the abortion referendum is held according to the planned timetable – in late May or early June – they will use the period after that campaign but before the summer recess in July to ask Martin to engage in negotiations to extend the confidence and supply deal.

That is almost certain to be too soon for Fianna Fáil, who will say their targets on health and housing have not yet been met. The talks could then be deferred until September, and wrapped into the budget.

One senior Fine Gael source says they will seek to cast the October budget as the first of an extended deal, rather than the last of the current arrangement. It is then Fianna Fáil will have to make its choice, if it has not already decided to cause an election.

Disagreement over the content of the budget would be an orderly parting of the ways, providing the opportunity to present competing visions of how the €3 billion in new funding available to Paschal Donohoe should be spent.

If the final budget will not be agreed, then the parties will have to prepare the ground, says one Fianna Fáil source. “Are we going to going to go through the whole process of a budget again if it is not going to last much longer after that?”

Even those who expect the budget to be agreed say the public must be conditioned to expect an election. “The average life of a minority government is 18 months. People’s expectations need to be managed beyond that.”

But Varadkar may make it impossible for the budget to pass, even if Martin wants it to. If the Taoiseach still believes the polls are in his favour, he could argue that Fianna Fáil reticence to negotiate to an extended deal will render budgetary talks pointless.

As they use the coming months to prepare for the next election, Martin and Fianna Fáil will also have to decide when they want the coming contest to be.

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