FG leaders falter this week, but it was FF again caught in a row

FF remain out of sorts despite Coveney and Varadkar being rattled over Zapppone saga

Simon Coveney is still willing to explain all the circumstances involved in Katherine Zappone’s appointment. File photograph: PA

Simon Coveney is still willing to explain all the circumstances involved in Katherine Zappone’s appointment. File photograph: PA

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This has been a strange week for Fianna Fáil. Fine Gael’s Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar were badly back-footed in trying to defend the appointment of Katherine Zappone as a special envoy to the United Nations

“This was a story of Fine Gael and its casual attitude to Government. Yet, for some reason it turned into one about a Fianna Fáil row,” complained one of the party’s TDs.

Again – like most things in Fianna Fáil these days – it reflects on Micheál Martin, his leadership and authority, and the desire of some that he should go, and go quickly.

Some in Fianna Fáil were annoyed that the Government’s (and especially Fianna Fáil’s) biggest set-piece of the year – Darragh O’Brien’s Housing for All strategy – was overshadowed by a Fine Gael-caused controversy.

Martin’s initial sotto voce response to the standards displayed by Varadkar and Coveney was a major irritant, prompting Barry Cowen to compare that with the treatment he received before being fired from Cabinet.

However, Martin made his own annoyance about it clear on Thursday – expressing frustration at its sullying effect on the housing launch, though he dismissed the controversy as “melodrama” and “overdramatics”.

But he rejected Cowen’s argument out of hand.

The former minister for agriculture had not been willing fully to explain the circumstances surrounding his drink-driving ban, while Coveney remains willing to explain all the circumstances involved in Zappone’s appointment.

Within a divided family like Fianna Fáil, the response to Martin’s tetchy reaction depended on whom you were speaking to. His abrupt criticism of Cowen did not go down well in some quarters.

“Micheál should have been focusing on the behaviour of Coveney and Varadkar in this episode,” said an annoyed TD who is not a fan of the leader. “He is Taoiseach and he should be using his authority . . . to assert Fianna Fáil values more strongly.”

Fianna Fáil is still in the throes of a crisis over its future, its identity and in its place in Irish politics that stems directly from its dismal 2020 general election. It has yet to deal with it.

There are extenuating circumstances, however. For one, unusually, it’s dealing with an electoral failing from the position of Government and not from Opposition.

Second, the Covid-19 crisis has meant the Government has been effectively in crisis mode since its formation with little time for meaningful self-examination. Especially when TDs have only been able to meet via laptop.

That does not give the party a free pass. It has also been the author of its own misfortunes. The weekly parliamentary party meetings have been unsightly Punch and Judy shows.

It has taken an aeon for it to produce its review of the 2020 election flop – it’s finally going to be discussed at the party think-in in the Slieve Russell hotel in Cavan next Thursday.

Its leadership struggled badly during the first six months of Coalition, but has improved. It has bet its political house on housing and health, banking on Darragh O’Brien and Stephen Donnelly to outperform themselves.

“All those things have contributed to the frustration and disquiet. The think-in is the first chance to meet collectively and properly as a party and I think that will be a huge benefit,” said a Senator.

Beyond that, most TDs are worried that for most voters Fianna Fáil is becoming irrelevant. The party needs to renew itself, refresh and radically change its composition and direction.

Fianna Fáil leadership

The less than 5 per cent support received by the party’s candidate in the Dublin Bay South byelection, Deirdre Conroy was a stark wake-up call, as several TDs have pointed out.

All of which raises the challenge of leadership: the question is when? There are a number (relatively small) who want Martin out now. There is a bigger group (mainly Ministers) who strongly support him.

The biggest group of all is composed of middle-ground TDs (many new) who do not think the issue of leadership should be considered until the end of 2022. From then on, however, the numbers for his survival may not stack up.

For now, though, despite the public interventions of the Barry Cowens or Marc MacSharrys, most of this group are of the view that calm and stability is required.

“It’s about trying to get a coherent message across. The vaccination programme is a success and can give us our own space. Stephen Donnelly is getting a bit of credit for that. The housing plan looks good.

“The problem is a lot of instability is coming from a few voices. We are a bit fed up with it. We need to stop the infighting as it is sucking up all the oxygen,” said one TD

In his history of Fianna Fáil, published in 2011, the late Noel Whelan concluded with a pessimistic prognosis for the party’s future health, saying: “The omens are not good for its recovery.”

The party’s fortunes have fluctuated since then but in September 2021 there are some who say that last devastating sentence still holds true for the Soldiers of Destiny.

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