Micheál Martin’s reshuffle is all about next election

New roles for Stephen Donnelly and Darragh O’Brien reveal focus on health and housing

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin: preparing his party for a general election that might be as soon as next autumn. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin: preparing his party for a general election that might be as soon as next autumn. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 

Micheál Martin’s sudden reshuffle of his front bench, announced on Thursday, can only be read as preparation for a general election that the party expects to take place either next autumn or not much beyond that.

Martin has told his frontbenchers he is committed to doing the third of the three budgets agreed under the confidence and supply agreement with Fine Gael, subject to agreement being reached on its terms. That commitment will include passing the Finance Bill and the Social Welfare Bill which will give effect to budget measures.

But after that, it’s anyone’s game. Few think that an extension of the agreement is in prospect. And if that is so, Micheál Martin is reshuffling his team to fight a general election.

So the Fianna Fáil leader has sought to reshape his team with campaigning in mind. He introduced changes in health and housing, the two areas that Fianna Fáil believes the Government to be most vulnerable on. Moving Barry Cowen and Billy Kelleher from these two portfolios suggests Martin believes they were not making sufficient political impact.

Raising eyebrows

Martin rates Stephen Donnelly highly, and he is also aware that the Wicklow TD has a strong media profile. Moving Kelleher after he led the party’s position on the Eighth Amendment committee – is likely to raise eyebrows, though Donnelly shares Kelleher’s – and Martin’s – views on the referendum and the 12- week legislation. But this move is not about the referendum, it’s about the election. He reckons Donnelly will give the party a more political edge.

Moving Darragh O’Brien from the foreign affairs brief to housing is intended to liberate the Dublin North TD’s appetite for political combat, not often evident in his former job. Perhaps as importantly, O’Brien is a Dublin deputy, and the housing problem is overwhelmingly a Dublin problem.

These two key moves underline the centrality that health and housing will have in the Fianna Fáil campaigning.

The other big move is appointing a deputy leader. Dara Calleary is relieved of his public expenditure portfolio to become Martin’s deputy and also becomes “director of policy development”, a new role which will see him co-ordinate the preparation of the party’s offering for the election. The referendum will dominate politics until the start of the summer. After that, we’ll be in election countdown.

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