Taoiseach Micheál Martin has hinted that the continuation of the Coalition government beyond the end of 2022 is linked to the switch-over in roles between him and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar.
He was responding to the doubts that have been raised within his own party about his leadership in the wake of the disastrous Dublin Bay South by-election which saw Fianna Fáil's candidate Cllr Deirdre Conroy get less than 5 per cent of the vote.
Mr Martin also said he was "heartened" by the support he has gotten from party members in recent days and that his focus and that of his party has to be on "the big issues facing the Irish people".
Some in Fianna Fáil have argued that the switchover at the top of Government would be the natural time for him to go as leader of Fianna Fáil.
At a press conference on Monday Mr Martin was asked if he realistically sees himself as Tánaiste given the unrest in his party.
He said he was very committed to the formation of the "unprecedented" Coalition with Fine Gael and the Green Party.
He suggested that the Government’s “sustainability and its continuation” will “involve that transition” in relation to the Taoiseach and Tánaiste roles.
He added: “That’s an important part of it which I have been consistently saying.”
Asked again if he can see himself becoming Tánaiste given the revolt among some in his party he replied: “That’s my response to it.”
Mr Martin said he's "very open" to a call by former Minister for Agriculture Barry Cowen at the weekend for an in-person meeting of the parliamentary party to discuss the poor results in both the by-election and last year's General Election but said "It won't be this week."
He also said: “I’m very heartened by the feedback I received from the membership of the party who voted overwhelmingly for Fianna Fáil to go into government with a clear purpose to focus on the needs and concerns of the Irish people.
“And we’re coming through a very unprecedented pandemic.”
He said the Pathways to Work strategy that he launched on Monday illustrates the degree of work to bring people back to work and to recover our economy, to take step changes in terms of policies around housing, and health and climate change.
"That's what the people of Ireland want us as a government and as a party, Fianna Fáil, my own party to focus on. I'm very clear about that."
On the result in Dublin Bay South he said that Government parties have lost 27 of the last 30 by-elections and he believes the result reflects the esteem with which voters holds the winner, Labour’s Ivana Bacik.
Mr Martin said Dublin South-West TD John Lahart got around 8 per cent of the vote in a by-election there in 2014 and went on to top the poll in the 2016 General Election.
Asked what he could do to get Fianna Fáil rebels back on board he reiterated: “My focus as Taoiseach and the focus of the party has to be on the big issues facing the Irish people.”
He insisted the Government is making “significant progress” on dealing with the pandemic, housing, health and education.
“That is my fundamental role as Taoiseach. I’m very determined and focused on that aspect of it.”
He added: “That said, I always work with my colleagues.
“I always engage with my colleagues even those who obviously might have different perspectives to me and criticise me. And I will engage with all colleagues in respect of the issues that concern them. Of course I will.”
Asked if he accepts people are unhappy with this leadership and if he understands why he said: “Look I understand all of that fully. I’m an experienced politician. I understand the full gamut of all the various perspectives that people have.”
He said: “I’ve also been very heartened by the feedback that I’ve received across the country.”
Mr Martin said mayoral changes in recent weeks that has seen Fianna Fáil councillors taking the role in councils up and down the country “rarely gets a mention these days.”
He said it showed Fianna Fáil’s success at the local elections - in which it became the largest party in local government - “only a few short months before the General Election”.
A growing number of Fianna Fáil TDs believe Mr Martin will not lead the party into the next general election but have downplayed prospects of any move against him in the near future.
Fianna Fáil director of elections for the Dublin Bay South byelection Jim O’Callaghan said on Sunday he would not sign any motion of no confidence in Mr Martin if approached to so.
In the wake of the party’s disastrous performance in the byelection won by Labour’s Ivana Bacik, Mr O’Callaghan said he did not think Mr Martin would be leading the party into a general election if the Government goes full term until 2025 but he would not be drawn on whether he should go when the Taoiseach and Tánaiste are due to switch roles at the end of 2022.
Some TDs contacted by The Irish Times at the weekend suggested that the in-person meeting called for by Mr Cowen could be the starting point of such a review but others believe the natural time for Mr Martin’s departure as leader would be when he is due to switch roles with Tánaiste Leo Varadkar at the end of next year.
Kildare North TD James Lawless said it would “make a lot of sense” to plan for a transition then.
He said Mr Martin is leading the country through Covid as well as dealing with the fallout from Brexit and should remain on as leader until then.
Clare TD Cathal Crowe also said Mr Martin is doing a good job as leader during Covid but said his “honest belief” is that Fianna Fáil will have a new leader by the next general election.
On Sunday Sligo-Leitrim TD Marc MacSharry – one of Mr Martin’s most frequent critics – posted a cryptic message on Twitter. It included an image of a chick and an egg with the words: “If an egg is broken by an outside force, life ends, if broken by inside force, life begins. Great things always begin from the inside.”
He later told The Irish Times he would sign a motion of no confidence in Mr Martin if one is circulated and hoped others would in sufficient numbers as well.