Martin faces critical political decision over renewal of support deal

Confidence-and-supply deal is due to be reviewed after budget

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has stuck to his position that any talks on a successor to the confidence-and-supply deal must wait until after the budget. Photograph: Conor McCabe

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has stuck to his position that any talks on a successor to the confidence-and-supply deal must wait until after the budget. Photograph: Conor McCabe

 

Micheál Martin insists he won’t talk about it until after the October 9th budget, but it is likely to be the main topic of conversation among his TDs when the Dáil returns from its summer recess today.

The confidence-and-supply deal is due to be reviewed after the budget, and, in the weeks ahead, Martin arguably faces his biggest political decision since first underpinning the Fine Gael-led minority government over two years ago.

Either he renews the arrangement, which was entirely his own creation, or he allows Taoiseach Leo Varadkar call an election and blame him for refusing to extend the deal as the country faces the conclusion of the Brexit negotiations.

Martin and Varadkar have sparred over the summer months, with the Taoiseach repeatedly proposing that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil agree on a summer 2020 date for the next election.

Martin stuck to his position that any talks on a successor agreement must wait until after the budget, a point Varadkar has reluctantly conceded. After an initial meeting in Killarney in late July, the pair were due to meet again before the new Dáil term. The second meeting is now likely to take place after the budget, according to sources.

Against a backdrop of a significant gap between the two main parties in opinion polls, many Fianna Fáil TDs believe their leader wants an extension.

“We all know this is Micheál Martin’s last election,” said one. “There is no doubt that if we are not in government after it people will move on him. He is just thinking to himself: ‘If I hang around for another year, something will change.’”

Risks

Yet for many, including a group of senior TDs – frontbenchers Jim O’Callaghan, Timmy Dooley, Billy Kelleher and Niall Collins, all of whom are loyal to their leader – the risks of continuing to facilitate Varadkar could outweigh poor opinion polls.

An extension, it is feared, would bind Fianna Fáil even more closely to the performance of the Government, and make it harder to act as a strong party of Opposition.

Among the wider parliamentary party, there are varying views on what Martin should do, and each is coloured by personal circumstance. A first time TD may not want an election, while another with a relatively safe seat may feel a rush to the polls worth the risk.

“We have reached a point where we are not going to get any further in the polls because we are seen to be facilitating this government,” said one senior deputy. “We are hamstrung to an extent.”

It is further argued that any extension of confidence and supply, no matter how long, is the same as letting the Government run to its full, five-year term. Only a “seismic” change in policy from Fine Gael, such as large-scale council house building, would allow for a renewed deal.

“Otherwise you’ll be doing the same thing again and again and hoping for a different outcome,” the TD added. “And I think Einstein said that was insanity.”

Another said: “The concern a lot of people will have is that if we renew it will look as if we are condoning the performance of the Government over the past three years. It may be the case that we are going down in the polls because of confidence and supply.”

Yet another senior TD called the confidence-and-supply deal an “infection that is slowly killing us”, adding that any extension would be “basically endorsing what they have done for the past three years”.

Pessimism has also taken hold, with one deputy remarking that Fianna Fáil would remain in Opposition anyway, so an immediate election would only speed up the inevitable. Another said Fine Gael had to “suck it up” when Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen were in power between 1997 and 2011, and that it is now Fianna Fáil’s turn to languish in Opposition.

Political judgment

Despite such sentiments, most have faith in Martin’s political judgment. It has been proven correct time and again, most recently in his strong support for a Yes vote in the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment.

If he wants to extend confidence and supply, he will get his way, sources admit, although he must allow TDs and senators have their say before any decision is made.

“It is a difficult call and he has displayed excellent political judgment on all the big issues,” said a TD. “People will listen to what he is suggesting.”

“All things being equal, I think he could do it,” said another. “Because people will just say: ‘It’s just another year without an election. It’s another year with a salary.’”

One frontbencher cautioned, however that “it can’t just be like when he walked in and told us we were supporting Michael D Higgins”.

The decision will be Martin’s alone, but the coming weeks will bring intense debate among his TDs about what he should do.

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