Grumblings over style of leadership do not constitute a challenge to Martin

Opinion: O’Rourke’s notion of a ‘grand coalition’ has little reality in short term


In the echo chamber that is the silly season, every utterance in the political rumour mill gets exaggerated in volume: some of them even make front-page news.

This explains, in large part, how grumblings about Micheál Martin’s leadership style, which have bubbling away within the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party for months, come in August to be reported as a putative challenge to his leadership.

Nothing of that order is in the works. The Fianna Fáil parliamentary party has had a difficult term, particularly on the abortion issue, but the internal difficulties are surmountable with some effort from the leader.

There are justifiable complaints from many TDs and Senators about Micheál Martin’s failure to consult more widely. There has been a failure to hold regular parliamentary party meetings. These are supposed to be held at 5pm every Tuesday when the Dáil is sitting. As often as not they are cancelled usually at short notice.

Front bench meetings, which are scheduled for noon on a Tuesday, are also stood down on occasion. Party spokespersons complain regularly about how policy announcements are being made by the leader or through the press office without reference to them. Some of these complaints are voiced by TDs or Senators who the media assume are close to the leader.

On the abortion issue, Martin did consult individually with TDs and Senators but he was slow to appreciate that he could not carry a majority to his position and was forced into allowing a free vote.

The notion, however, that Fianna Fáil is even considering ditching Martin as leader at this stage is nonsense.

For all the complaints about a lack of consultation, Fianna Fáil TDs know that, for the time being at least, Martin is the best option as leader. He has managed to stabilise the situation after the disaster of the last election. Many, although not all, former Fianna Fáil voters have moved on from the fact that he was a member of the last much-despised government.

As leader of the opposition he has improved his parliamentary game over the last year. More importantly he has worked the party organisation tirelessly, improved morale and encouraged the emergence of new faces. He has given the party the prospect of gains in next year’s local and European elections.

Martin has managed to position Fianna Fáil well to benefit in any further slippage in support for the government. It is remarkable that Fianna Fáil is polling in the 20s just 2½ years after the collapse in the 2011 election.

It is interesting also that there were no statistical shifts in the most recent Red C poll for Paddy Power published this week. Both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are at or about the same place they were when the last such poll was published in June. That was before the intense controversy around the abortion legislation. The loss of the party whip by several Fine Gael TDs and senators has had no impact on the Fine Gael vote share.

The fact that the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party voted two-thirds against the legislation and one-third for it has also had no impact.

The Fianna Fáil figure in this Red C poll, at 22 per cent, is shy of where they were a year or so ago. August polls in the mid-point of the life of the Dáil must be read with additional caution. It will be much more important to see if there is any real movement in the polls later this year after the budget.

As long as he can hold the party at above 20 per cent and has a good local and European elections, Martin’s position as leader will continue to be safe. After that, the fate of his party and its prospects of being back in government any time soon will depend on the state of the economy and the performance of the Government, rather than anything that Martin or Fianna Fáil can do.

In this context it is not clear what to make of Mary O’Rourke’s call this week for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to give serious consideration to going into government with each other. O’Rourke herself spoke of how her suggestion was open to being dismissed as the summer school musings of a former politician. However she grounded her argument well within in her own family heritage on both sides of the Civil War and in the context of the political accommodations that have been necessary in Northern Ireland.

There has been no official Fianna Fáil reaction to what O’ Rourke had to say. The Fine Gael response has been mixed. Minister Leo Varadkar rejected the idea in trenchant tribal terms. On the other hand, junior minister Ciarán Cannon, himself a relative newcomer to Fine Gael, tweeted agreement with O’Rourke and spoke of how “a new generation of politicians can set aside divisions formed 100 years ago which don’t reflect current challenges”.

It will be interesting to see the more medium-term Fine Gael reaction to the idea of a grand coalition of the two largest parties. There is little reality to such a coalition actually happening after the next election, but leaving the notion hanging in the air serves some political purposes. It reminds Labour that Fine Gael may have other options. Fianna Fáil is helped by the fact that the concept of them being in government soon, in any configuration, is being discussed at all. It may also help to dispel the notion that if it had to, Fianna Fáil would go into government with Sinn Féin before Fine Gael.

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