Micheál Martin takes muted but not modest line of attack
Fianna Fáil think-in focuses on complaints about Government spin rather than policy
Leader of Fianna Fáil Micheál Martin with members of the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party ahead of the party’s think-in in Longford, on Monday. Photograph: Eamonn Farrell/RollingNews.ie
The Fianna Fáil parliamentary party’s September think-ins are a far cry nowadays from the heady days of Inchydoney in west Cork in 2004 or the Ardilaun Hotel in Galway in 2010 when extravagant gestures and big set pieces to set the news agenda were the order of the day.
Seven months after the heavy general election defeat of 2011, the party held its think-in in a modest suburban hotel in Tallaght. It well illustrated Fianna Fáil’s reduced circumstances. Where once, there were almost 80, three were now just 19 TDs (Brian Lenihan had died that summer). There were no big policy announcements. The biggest talking point was whether the party would endorse an independent candidate in the presidential election.
This understated, underwhelming, approach has continued in subsequent years, even though the graph has been rising steadily for the party’s electoral fortunes.
In Longford yesterday the atmosphere was muted but not quite as downbeat as the sad motorcade of Mayo supporters passing through on their way home to the west.
There was no standout policy announcement for the autumn. The main guest speakers were two big hitters – DIT lecturer Lorcan Sirr on housing and Prof Alan Ahearne on the economy. It was serious and deliberative, if not exactly inspiring.
The major line of attack for Micheál Martin in his speech to the gathering was his claims about Government excess, particularly when it came to spin.
“The media presentation of policies,” he said, “has become the absolute priority. In every substantive area, real or imagined initiatives are being trailed in a long series of media briefings and launched in situations which limit scrutiny and that lack substance.”
His gripes ranged from burying bad news on quiet days, to the new Strategic Communications Unit (“a Fine Gael spin machine, let’s call a spade a spade”) and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s style, with Martin claiming the Taoiseach was obsessed with political manoeuvring rather than substantive policy.
Housing and health
In terms of what Fianna Fáil is offering in the autumn season, he was general rather than specific. He pointed to housing and health, as well as to the party’s budgetary priorities.
The party did come up with a plan during the summer to reduce VAT on construction projects as a temporary measure but, for some, it was uncomfortably close to the Fianna Fáil that existed before “new politics” came along. Martin yesterday claimed Fine Gael had deliberately distorted the idea in a partisan way. Whatever the cause, it is clear the party is putting less emphasis on it now, and more on the more general demand for social and affordable housing.
Another big theme for the party this autumn will be health. Martin was again critical of the Government: “This is the first Government in a quarter of a century which doesn’t actually have a health strategy.”
His main suggestion was a full restoration of the national treatment purchase unit.
Martin and the party’s economic spokesmen Michael McGrath and Dara Calleary have also laid down strong markers for October’s budget. They have already signalled they might oppose Paschal Donohoe’s plans to broaden the tax bands on the basis the changes would favour the better-off. The party has pointed to the confidence and supply agreement it has with the Government.
Rainy day fund
It wants the entry level for universal social charge to be lowered from 5 per cent to 4.5 per cent, something it says will benefit 1.3 million taxpayers. Yesterday, Martin also said it would press for the Government to retain a rainy day fund.
There were no deal-breakers but there will be certainly some tense discussions between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil over the next few weeks.
The underlying ambitions of Fianna Fáil are anything but modest. Back in 2011, one TD said it would take 15 years for the party to recover fully. But after winning an unexpected 44 seats in the 2016 general election, it now has expectations of leading the government after the next election, although not with Sinn Féin – Martin again ruled that out in the most categorical terms yesterday.
When the next election will be held is another question. Martin referred, a little tongue in cheek, to Fine Gael having its manifesto ready by November.
But all the signals coming from Longford were that Fianna Fáil, at least, does not foresee an election until late 2018.