Micheál Martin has one shot at power in the ‘game of thrones’

Analysis: Growing expectation in Fine Gael that Martin will manoeuvre election early in 2018

Irish Times political reporter Sarah Bardon talks to Fianna Fáil members about preparing for a general election at the party's ardfheis in Dublin.

 

For most of his leadership of Fianna Fáil, Micheál Martin privately accepted that he would be the first leader of his party never to serve as taoiseach.

His job would be very different from that of de Valera, Lemass, Lynch and the rest. His job was not to lead the party that led the country: his job would be to rescue it from oblivion.

It wasn’t just the 2011 Armageddon at the polls. Elections often just crystalise what is already a fact on the ground. Fianna Fáil’s fall from grace didn’t happen in 2011; it happened over the three years before it, as a combination of the international financial crash and the party’s disastrous management of the economy led to a public opprobrium towards the party unlike anything Irish politics had ever seen.

Candidates – those gutsy enough to stick with it, many weren’t – were literally chased from the doors.

In the wake of the 2011 election, when the party lost more than 50 seats and a quarter of the entire electorate, it was a reasonable question as to whether Fianna Fáil would wither and die. Many people who know the party thought it would; many others wished it would.

The turnaround since then has been remarkable, to say the least, and much of it has been down to Martin’s leadership. Though the Fianna Fáil front bench is now a beefier presence, for the last Dáil he was really the party’s only truly front-rank national politician.

At the last election he dragged Fianna Fáil – then as now in danger of being marginalised in a Fine Gael v Sinn Féin narrative – to the centre of the election debate and fought off all-comers. Ultimately, he came within a whisker of beating Fine Gael.

Transformed

And though he passed up the chance to enter government in a grand coalition with Fine Gael, the party’s prospects were transformed. Suddenly the taoiseach’s office looked likely rather than impossible. The bookies made him favourite to lead the next government. The boys were back in town.

But if Fianna Fáil could see all this, Fine Gael could see it too. Enda Kenny was pushed out – and let us not forget he was pushed – because his party did not want him fighting an election against Martin.

Varadkar is a different kind of opponent; his elevation has transformed the pitch. Martin’s “game of thrones” has changed again.

Now the two leaders circle each other warily. Their Dáil exchanges have both a frisson and a meaningfulness that Martin’s exchanges with Kenny rarely featured. Martin was used to bossing Kenny around a bit; Varadkar is more than happy to take him on.

Both men know that the day of their showdown will come. The confidence and supply agreement, the creation of Martin above all others and about which Varadkar was deeply sceptical, runs for another year and another budget. After that Martin has no intention of renewing it.

“There is,” says a person familiar with Martin’s thinking on the matter, “no scenario in which there is another two years in this.”

So, there will be an election in the medium term – probably next year, if not early the following year.

But what triggers it? Neither party wants to be seen to precipitate an election.

The example of Theresa May – who called an election for her own selfish political purposes and destroyed her premiership by failing to win it – looms large in the psyche of all politicians nowadays.

Sources close to both Martin and Varadkar pooh-pooh the notion that they couldn’t run to the country for fear of a public backlash.

“The idea that we can’t have an election because of what happened to May is ludicrous, when you think about it,” says a Cabinet Minister. “May lost because she ran a shite campaign. We won’t run a shite campaign.”

On one point the leaderships of both parties agree: the lesson from May’s misfortune isn’t that you can’t call an early election. It’s that you can’t call an early election for no reason.

Need a reason

There is a growing expectation in Fine Gael that Martin will manoeuvre an election early next year. Ironically, this is mirrored precisely in Fianna Fáil, which thinks Varadkar wants one in the first quarter of 2018. But the truth is that either man will need a reason.

Martin understands this. When his TDs press the point, he says to them: okay, tell me why we are having an election.

Some Fianna Fáil frontbenchers think that they have already missed the boat. Several TDs who spoke to The Irish Times last week said the party should have forced an election in February when Enda Kenny was forced to announce his departure.

“We could plausibly have pulled it down on that,” says one TD. “And remember it would have been against Enda Kenny.”

Another senior figure scoffs at this. “They would have replaced Enda after three days and we would have been running against Leo who wouldn’t have been compromised by office. These guys just don’t think things through. Remember these were the guys who were trying to push us into coalition with Fine Gael as well.”

“They tried to force an election in February,” says another source. But Martin held firm.

There is a loosely-affiliated election lobby in the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party. It does not advocate it publicly, but privately it believes that letting Varadkar take over was a mistake, and that the sooner there is an election the better.

It is grumpy about the budget because it can now see the Government lasting another year, when fiscal projections suggest that Paschal Donohoe will have a lot more cash to give away before an election – something that makes it very nervous.

There is also an undercurrent of personal antipathy towards Martin among some of his parliamentary party. They complain that he doesn’t consult them, or listen to their opinions. That is mostly true.

They complain about the influence of his most important advisers, chief-of-staff Deirdre Gillane and head of communications Pat McParland. And about headquarters, of course, where general secretary Sean Dorgan is seeking to saddle some of them with running mates they would rather do without.

Bitching about Martin

But the function of advisers is sometimes to be complained about in lieu of their boss. The TDs are really bitching about Martin, and everybody knows it. Martin dominates his party, but he does not control it absolutely.

Essentially this argument is about timing rather than strategy. But there’s another element to it. You can never disaggregate personal considerations completely in politics.

More than half the parliamentary party won their seats for the first time at the last election. Others are the survivors of 2011; they don’t owe their seats to Martin or anyone else. Many of them would be in the cabinet if Fianna Fáil returned to government now. But their chances of a cabinet position won’t improve in the future. They will only disimprove.

“We have a bunch of newbies,” says one seasoned frontbencher. “They’re nervous of an election.”

“The more experienced guys are saying ‘let’s go’,” says one first-time TD.

What of the grassroots membership who will gather in the RDS this weekend? They seem in no particular hurry to have an election.

“I’d be afraid if we pulled the plug people would see it as a stroke,” says Donal Foley, a long time activist and former director of elections for the party in Dublin West.

“If there was an election we’d be ready for it,” says Keith Henry, a Sligo councillor. “But I’m out knocking on doors, and people don’t really want an election.”

“We can’t believe where we are. We thought it would be a longer road back. But Leo is a smooth operator. We’ll have to wait him out a bit,” says David Funcheon from Monaghan. “I chair CDC [Comhairle Dáil Ceanntar, the constituency council] meetings once a month. The feedback I get is keep building.”

At the ardfheis in Dublin this weekend, Martin will bask in the adulation of the party membership. In his televised address he will attack Sinn Féin but emphasise difference with Fine Gael – right-wing, unconcerned with “fairness”, for the few not the many. The delegates will love it.

Achievements

The things that Fianna Fáilers talk about as the party’s great achievements are not the McCreevy tax cuts, but the public housing, the expansion of education, the expansion of the welfare state – all classically social democratic priorities. In this respect Martin is more in tune with the membership than he is with the parliamentary party.

And so noisily will the hall hail the man who has brought them back from the edge of the abyss to the brink of power.

But even as they cheer him to the rafters, Martin knows that it could be his last ardfheis or he could return next year as taoiseach.

Because when the election comes it will be his last chance to seize the throne. His TDs would not put up with another term in opposition – Fianna Fáil might have changed but it hasn’t changed completely.

Martin knows he has one shot. So he had better execute it carefully.