Leadership at issue as Fianna Fáil eyes prospects after pandemic

Vaccine rollout in coming weeks seen within party as crucial to position of Micheál Martin

Taoiseach Micheál Martin and HSE chief executive Paul Reid during a visit to the Citywest Covid-19 vaccination centre in Dublin last Wednesday. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Taoiseach Micheál Martin and HSE chief executive Paul Reid during a visit to the Citywest Covid-19 vaccination centre in Dublin last Wednesday. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

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Those who have been close to Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin say he never expected to be taoiseach, given the state of the party when he became leader in January 2011. That changed, however, after the 2016 general election.

Then, Fianna Fáil more than doubled its number of Dáil seats from 20 to 44 and by the following July support among likely voters had jumped even further by a very healthy nine points to 33 per cent.

Five years later, though, the party is struggling in the polls ahead of a crucial 10-week period for the party, the Government and the State, with much riding on the success of the Covid-19 vaccine rollout.

For this reason, some in Fianna Fáil are reluctant now to speak about the party’s future, saying that the public would not appreciate navel gazing when when the focus should be on the pandemic.

The leadership issue is on the back burner for now, they say. Except it is not. On the contrary, it is very much afoot. The jostling for position and allegiances is “relentless”, says one seasoned TD.

The numbers are apparently nearly there for a challenge. But more of that later.

The first question is: where did it all go wrong for a party that just five years ago made a stunning rise from the ashes of political ruin? And one that had then hoped for even more. And what next?

New politics

When Fianna Fáil struck the confidence-and-supply deal with Fine Gael in 2016, it was with the blessing of the parliamentary party, which did not believe a grand coalition was viable but liked the idea of pulling strings from the outside.

Two things happened in late 2017 and early 2018 that are at the root of today’s rumblings. Firstly, Leo Varadkar’s tough stance against London during Brexit negotiations, which saw Fine Gael take an 11-point lead over Fianna Fáil in December 2017.

Martin would then shock his TDs in January 2018 with an unexpected Dáil speech saying he would vote in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment and to allow abortion on request until near the end of the first trimester.

Some said it was brave, others said it was a betrayal. Later, a photograph taken in Merrion Square emerged of more than half of the parliamentary party holding placards urging the public to vote No.

Martin, not for the first time, was out of step with his colleagues, but he was very much in step with the public mood, given the landslide vote in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment that summer.

The photo of anti-abortion Fianna Fáil TDs seriously impacted on Fianna Fáil’s ability to attract younger voters over the last three years. If Martin had not done what he did, the party would have “dragged him the other way” and “things would be even worse than they are now”, says one strategist.

But the troops were becoming increasingly restive.

Confidence and supply

Many of those interviewed argue that things took a turn for the worse when Martin extended the confidence-and-supply deal with Fine Gael. “There is no scenario in which there is another two years in this,” a person familiar with his thinking told The Irish Times in 2017.

Yet in the face of a potentially ruinous no-deal Brexit, that is exactly what happened the following year when Martin made the decision that it was not the time to pull the plug. It was the right thing for the country, but the wrong thing for Fianna Fáil, an insider says.

“We stayed in confidence and supply too long. Micheál made all of these big decisions as leader of the Opposition and he did not consult with anyone about the extension. He just walked into the Dáil and announced it one day. It was bizarre,” one TD said this week.

On Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly, one Fianna Fáil TD said: “The public do not like Stephen. They’ve given up on him.” Photograph: Sam Boal/Photocall
On Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly, one Fianna Fáil TD said: “The public do not like Stephen. They’ve given up on him.” Photograph: Sam Boal/Photocall

It led to huge internal animosity, even if it was not unpopular with the public that did not want to see an election held in such circumstances. The underlying significance of this move would become apparent the following year.

There is a view that the move to keep the party in government left it unable to match an increasingly energetic Sinn Féin in Opposition and also left them intrinsically tied to Fine Gael in the mind of the voter.

Local and European elections

However, the May 2019 local elections brought better news. Fianna Fáil retained its top spot locally, winning 279 seats – a gain of 12 on 2011. There were grumblings about the European election results, however, after a two-candidate strategy in the Midlands North West constituency bombed.

When party insiders are asked to name positive moments they talk about that summer: “One of the big pieces of infrastructure that Fianna Fáil still has, a massive electoral asset, are their councillors.

“They are own-brand merchants who would be popular for who they are, as opposed to their party. The question is whether that level of political representation can withstand the deterioration at TD level,” says one person closely connected to events.

The big issue on the doorstep during the election was housing. The party did not pay enough heed, says a councillor. “Sinn Féin did not have a good day in the locals. They went off the grid. We should have noticed it. They did a postmortem and took action. We did not,” according to a prominent party member.

This idea is rejected by those loyal to Martin: “There is rarely a postmortem after a good election,” says one, not unreasonably.

Eoghan Murphy effect

By the autumn of 2019, the housing crisis had significantly worsened. Homeless numbers breached the 10,000 mark. The average rent in Dublin had risen 100 per cent since 2010.

In December, Fine Gael’s minister for housing, Eoghan Murphy, survived a motion of no confidence by 56 votes to 53. Fianna Fáil abstained. In the Dáil, Darragh O’Brien, who has taken over from Murphy as Minister for Housing, accused the Government of “trying to spread the blame” to other parties. By then it was too late, three Fianna Fáil TDs told The Irish Times.

In the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party there is growing concern about Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien. Photograph: Alan Betson
In the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party there is growing concern about Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien. Photograph: Alan Betson

The abstention on the confidence motion ensured blame was on both parties. “We were seen as being far too close to Fine Gael. We effectively supported Eoghan Murphy. The public really turned on us that December,” said one.

Another remembers the abuse taken during Christmas doorstep visits. A bright spot was the party’s dual success in November byelection with Malcolm Byrne taking a seat in Wexford and Pádraig O’Sullivan doing so in Cork North Central.

Yet some TDs were still looking over their shoulder at Sinn Féin’s finely-honed campaign in Dublin Mid-West where Mark Ward upset the pre-election predictions, taking a second seat, largely helped by its existing TD, Eoin O’Broin.

“That [byelection] was a bonus but I remember watching the Eoin Ó Broin result and thinking, there is something to that,” says one TD.

General election

While the pre-election debacle over plans for a commemoration of the Royal Irish Constabulary was a mess caused by Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil lost as much if not more favour with the public as Sinn Féin put the boot in.

Some believe the party was “too ambiguous” in the early stages of the controversy when Fine Gael was still in a flap, and it allowed Sinn Féin to capitalise on sizeable public anger.

In a spat between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin, it is Fianna Fáil which loses, which is a pattern that has been replicated since. “It damaged us hugely,” said a TD.

Speaking about the following general election, party members do not hold back: “We had a really bad campaign. There was complete overconfidence in the leadership that all we had to do was turn up and we would be the larger party.

“We had the same manifesto as the previous election, An Ireland For All. We didn’t even bother thinking about change. And nothing changed. We ran a boring campaign. There were no standout policies.

“Micheál Martin took too much on himself. It was presumed he would do great in the debates, but he did not. That was Mary Lou, ” says one Fianna Fáil TD, who is not unrepresentative of the opinions of other colleagues.

An early decision to exclude Mary Lou McDonald from a Prime Time leaders’ debate made matters worse. “We started getting it on the doors, why have Sinn Féin been excluded,” another TD said. “It was Mary Lou this, Mary Lou that.

“Sinn Féin was masterful in how they built on that debate. It was the establishment excluding them, but more importantly it was the establishment excluding a woman, with this image of these two men on the inside. Their social media game was top class too.”

Then the pensions row exploded. Sinn Féin pledged to keep the pensions age at 65. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil proposed transition payments. “We were all over the place on pensions, and we were aligned with Fine Gael.

“This opened Sinn Féin up to people in their mid-50s onwards who would never have voted for them. It appealed to their pockets. It grew from there,” another TD said.

Current and former members argue that Fianna Fáil should have been more open to talking to Sinn Féin. The decision to keep the door so firmly jammed left the party hemmed in, they insist. However, this is challenged by the fact that an exit election poll showed that 60 per cent of Fianna Fáil voters believed that Martin had been right to rule out a deal with Sinn Féin.

Summer of discontent

Covid-19 changed everything. A caretaker Fine Gael government steered the ship as the virus began to tear through the country. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil ditched the Civil War rivalries and entered coalition with the Greens.

Three-quarters of Fianna Fáil’s 11,000 members backed the deal. The rotating Taoiseach arrangement was agreed with Martin taking the first spin. The acrimony over his choice of Ministers has been well documented but those choices have ramifications to this day.

“In terms of polling, Fine Gael are not being affected in the same way as Fianna Fáil. The choice of ministerships was not well designed. We took on health and housing and education and now we are in the eye of every storm. I think Micheál made his choice based on who he wanted around him. He wants to micromanage everything,” said a senior politician who believes Martin made his choices based on “who he can control”.

Dublin Bay South TD Jim O’Callaghan is seen as a likely contender in a Fianna Fáil leadership contest. Photograph: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie
Dublin Bay South TD Jim O’Callaghan is seen as a likely contender in a Fianna Fáil leadership contest. Photograph: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

However, those who work closely with Martin and know his thinking reject that, saying that he made his choices based on ability, gender and, to a certain extent, geography.

Among the parliamentary party, there is growing concern about Stephen Donnelly, the Minister for Health, and Darragh O’Brien, the Minister for Housing.

On Donnelly, one TD says: “The public do not like Stephen. They’ve given up on him. I lost faith in him after Christmas. He is dismissive of our concerns. His office is a disaster in terms of coming back. That is a TD’s bread and butter.”

Those close to Donnelly paint a picture of a Minister with so much on his plate that one day someone will look back and ask why no one shouted stop. He does not go on social media, they say, because of the level of vitriol. He had to erect a fence outside his house for his family’s safety.

On O’Brien, the party knows how important it is that it makes inroads with housing. But there are serious misgivings about his shared-equity scheme. Even his own colleagues believe it will push up prices and it is causing anxiety.

Vaccine gamble

Amid all this handwringing is the obvious question: what next for Micheál Martin? Where stands his leadership? While some did not want to entertain questions about it, many had no such qualms.

Some even have mental tallies of who is supporting who.

Scarred by the decision to allow a “meaningful Christmas”, and acutely aware of serious public anger about the length of lockdowns, the Fianna Fáil faithful believe the coming 10 weeks will be crucial for Martin. He has “invested an enormous amount of political capital in this vaccine being delivered,” says one long-time TD. “If that goes well in July, great. If it does not, then there will be a problem.”

Another said there is a sense that while a leadership contest will not be called immediately, or even soon, the situation is volatile because of the promises made on vaccines.

They say there is currently “60:40” support for the Taoiseach among his party but this could swing very quickly. Others have it at 50:50 with five or six floating votes but it tends to be the agitators who say this.

Out in front is Dublin Bay South TD Jim O’Callaghan. Those close to him say he is not canvassing or cajoling or making any moves. His supporters say they are having to constantly approach him, egging him on to take his chances seriously. But there is no doubt he is seriously considering it.

“When the time is right, he will go for it, 100 per cent,” a supporter said. “We need a Dublin leader.”

There are plenty, though, who are not enamoured with the idea of O’Callaghan as leader. “It seems to be almost a side hustle to him,” said one party member. Another said: “There is risk for some people being out in the race too early. This is not a sprint.”

When one senior member of the party was asked if there is jostling and phone calls flying about contenders generally, he laughed and said: “Oh God, there is! It is relentless. They’re at it the whole time.” Other names in contention include Michael McGrath, Darragh O’Brien, Barry Cowen and perhaps Dara Calleary.

McGrath, steady in his handling of his new ministry in public expenditure, and O’Brien, a Dublin TD, are seen as the front-runners in this group.

Nothing happens, though, until a motion of confidence is lodged and a majority of the party decides it should proceed. “Once a challenge is presented, Micheál is gone. It will win.” Such a statement sounds unsentimental, but that’s politics.

Post-pandemic world

Unthinkable as it sounds, there is another world post-pandemic. One of the key questions for the party is how it approaches the thorny question of Irish unity. Some of the Taoiseach’s internal critics dismiss his Shared Island initiative.

“Everyone is talking about United Ireland,” one such critic exclaimed, “but, Jesus, we are not allowed to talk about that. That is in the cupboard. We need to recognise we are a republican party, and the unionists know it.”

A recent debate on RTÉ’s Claire Byrne Live caused internal upset after the lion’s share of the attention was given to exchanges between Leo Varadkar and Mary Lou McDonald, going to the heart of the fears that members have that the party is “becoming irrelevant”.

The violent scenes in Northern Ireland in recent days, however, have convinced others that Martin’s caution has been vindicated, and better reflects the views of a majority of voters in the Republic, despite the clamour by some for early preparations for a referendum.

Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Michael McGrath is seen as a front-runner in the event of a Fianna Fáil leadership contest. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Michael McGrath is seen as a front-runner in the event of a Fianna Fáil leadership contest. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

There are many other big questions but two more stand out: can Fianna Fáil TDs stomach handing over the Taoiseach’s office to Varadkar in a year and a half? And what are the party’s prospects if an election is called?

On the first question, only time will tell. On the second, there are fears of another wipeout, and although commentators should always be wary of writing off a party such as Fianna Fáil, this is a real worry for some.

One doomy prediction offered was that if an election was held tomorrow, and the party was polling as low as 11 per cent, Fianna Fáil would struggle to hold on to any of its seats in Dublin, except perhaps for Darragh O’Brien.

And then there is the issue of the financial health of the party and its ability to fight elections, given that hundreds of thousands of euro has been lost in church-gate collections and national super-draws that can no longer happen.

Despite all of the grumbles about Martin, there are many in Fianna Fáil behind the scenes who are deeply frustrated by party’s self-cannibalisation. Fianna Fáil, they say, remains the largest party in Seanad, Dáil and local government.

Public bloodletting does nothing but damage the brand, they argue. Approaches its 100th anniversary, it is clear it is going to take more than a new leader to fix the deep and complicated issues facing Fianna Fáil.

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