Martin cites national interest and Brexit for keeping Varadkar in power

Fianna Fáil leader showed deft political management in how he manoeuvred party

Micheál Martin on Leinster House plinth on Wednesday. The Fianna Fáil leader reacted sharply to suggestions that the extension was offered in the hope Fianna Fáil could close the gap on Fine Gael. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Micheál Martin on Leinster House plinth on Wednesday. The Fianna Fáil leader reacted sharply to suggestions that the extension was offered in the hope Fianna Fáil could close the gap on Fine Gael. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

 

The conclusion of what at times seemed like an interminable and opaque process came with surprising speed and clarity.

There was no last minute row to satisfy the grassroots; no faux hardballing over a conclusion that was well signposted.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, having prepared the ground for weeks for an announcement that he would extend the confidence and supply deal, played his hand as best he could.

Citing the uncertainty of Brexit as the reason for extending Leo Varadkar’s stay in Government Buildings until 2020, Martin argued the national interest meant not spending months next year campaigning in a general election and then attempting to form a new administration.

After seven weeks of talks between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – with no new policy commitments agreed between the two parties – a general air of relief took hold in Leinster House.

Figures from both parties say the public would not thank either for causing an election while Brexit remained uncertain, although a number of TDs from both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil wanted to go to the country sooner rather than later.

Fianna Fáil believed Varadkar himself wanted an election in recent months, and Martin’s actions indicated that he did not want to allow the Taoiseach to call one.

Underwritten

Fianna Fáil had already underwritten the Government until Brexit takes effect next March. The local and European elections take place in late May, along with two referendums and a number of plebiscites on directly elected mayors.

Although the existing confidence and supply deal was coming to its end, following the passage of budget legislation, the window for a general election in the first half of next year was closing.

For two parties competing for centre ground votes, the decision announced on Wednesday made sense but its air of inevitability was due to Martin allowing the idea of a year’s extension float in the ether since autumn.

He can emerge with some credit and will use the decision to further his pitch that his Fianna Fáil is one that is responsible and can be trusted.

Close the gap

Yet Martin reacted sharply to suggestions that the extension was offered, at least in part, in the hope that Fianna Fáil could close the gap on Fine Gael. His TDs have bought into the argument that Varadkar’s popularity may drop the more the public gets used to his leadership.

He said these claims were “superficial and shallow” and that any such considerations had “no influence whatsoever in the decision I took”.

“We are now stronger as a party than we were before 2016. Significantly stronger. So we have no fears of any elections at all.”

Many of his senior TDs, however, believe that while the turbulence of Brexit was the main argument for extending the current arrangement, their leader realised his best chance of turning the tables on Varadkar was in the longer term.

“He never said that but he is a politician, he wants to win the next election,” said one Fianna Fáil TD. “You couldn’t say it wasn’t a consideration but it wasn’t to the fore.”

Another senior deputy said Martin recognised he had some catching up to do on Varadkar and success was more likely as time went on. “He is very confident he will do it,” said the TD, who added that Fianna Fáil was not afraid of an election.

Martin also showed deft political management in manoeuvring his party into accepting what he wanted, and by making the announcement this week.

He did not specifically tell Varadkar during their meeting on Tuesday night that he intended to offer to extend the deal until 2020.

Between the lines

Like almost everyone else in Leinster House in recent weeks, the Taoiseach was left to read between the lines of what Martin was saying.

Martin only confirmed to Varadkar exactly what he intended to do in the Dáil chamber on Wednesday afternoon, approaching the Taoiseach before statements from party leaders on this week’s European Council summit.

What Martin has proposed is just a few months shy of Varadkar’s suggestion from earlier this year that both men agree the election be held in the summer of 2020.

Both can be happy with the outcome.

Varadkar largely got what he wanted, and Martin announced an extension on his own terms without being pressured into it by Fine Gael.

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