Partisanship and division in store when Dáil returns to Leinster House

Analysis: there is an unsettling dynamic in FF over its leadership, while Fine Gael cannot seem to escape the consequences of its errors

Taoiseach Micheál Martin at the Fianna Fáil think-in in Co Cavan. He will seek to put unrest in the party behind him after last week’s lengthy internal discussions. Photograph:  Conor McCabe/PA

Taoiseach Micheál Martin at the Fianna Fáil think-in in Co Cavan. He will seek to put unrest in the party behind him after last week’s lengthy internal discussions. Photograph: Conor McCabe/PA

 

The Dáil ends its exile at the National Convention Centre this week when it returns to Leinster House to start a political term that is likely to be marked by partisanship and division.

The temperature will soar from the outset when TDs debate a motion of no confidence put down by Sinn Féin in the Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney.

That debate – though really it will be a series of prepared attacks by Opposition on Government and vice versa – will set the tone for a few weeks in which the Government will seek to set the agenda by launching its Climate Action Plan and then the budget.

There is little expectation that the Government will lose the Coveney motion, though the debate and the weeks of controversy that have preceded it have been deeply unsettling for the coalition, triggering anxious conversations in both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

The Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin, will seek to put unrest in the party behind him after last week’s lengthy internal discussions at the party’s think-in at a Co Cavan hotel. However, a core group of TDs hostile to his leadership remain, and even if they are expected to vote for the Government on Wednesday they will remain an important factor in internal Fianna Fáil politics.

For now Martin has mollified the concerns of the middle-ground TDs in his party, but they know – as does he – that the prospect of him leading the party into the next election is a remote one. That brings its own unsettling dynamic into all the party’s affairs.

Things have been equally difficult for Fine Gael in recent months, and Sunday’s newspapers saw front-page batterings for Leo Varadkar on a variety of fronts. His poll numbers are nose-diving and the niggling fears remain over the as yet unconcluded investigation into his leaking of a document to a doctor pal in 2019. Almost nobody in his party expects Varadkar to face charges for the leak. But they know if he did it would surely be the end.

Gaffe-prone

Perhaps more worrying for Fine Gaelers as they approach the autumn political term is just how gaffe-prone their Ministers have become. Monday’s think-in began with apologies from Varadkar, Coveney and Paschal Donohoe. This is, to put it mildly, not a great look for the party.

The Zappone saga continued to rumble throughout the first day of the party’s think-in in Trim, Co Meath, on Monday. The party cannot seem to escape the consequences of its own errors.

In contrast to the two big parties of Government, Sinn Féin approaches the forthcoming term with a spring in its step – buoyed by not just the coalition’s difficulties but by soaring opinion poll numbers. The party is cementing its position as the leaders of the Opposition and the basis of a prospective alternative government.

But Sinn Féin knows as much as anyone how quickly political fortunes can turn; just months before its barnstorming result in the 2020 general election the party was wondering what went wrong in the 2019 local and European election when it suffered a haemorrhage of seats. So the task it faces is to lock down its new support, not just through attacks on the Government, but through plans for government if and when it gets there.

Of the smaller parties, Labour begins the term trying to hold on to the momentum from Ivana Bacik’s victory in the Dublin Bay South byelection, while the Socials Democrats are likely to focus on the stuttering of the Sláintecare reform of the health service after the resignations of its two top officials.

People Before Profit/Solidarity will offer its customary mixture of campaigning in the streets and high volume – literally and metaphorically – criticism of the Government in the Dáil.

Climate legislation

For the Greens the coming weeks are some of the most important since the party joined the coalition last year. The plan for implementing the targets laid out in the Government’s climate legislation is due to be finalised and published in the coming weeks. It will bring the public – and the Greens’ sometimes reluctant partners in government – face to face with the measures required to achieve the massive and rapid reduction in emissions of global warming gases.

Securing political agreement and public assent for the measures may turn out to be one of the most difficult tasks facing the Government. But right now the Government hardly seems in the shape to take on that task.

The three think-ins of the Government parties in recent days were all overshadowed to a greater or lesser extent by self-inflicted controversies: Fianna Fáil on its leadership, Fine Gael on the Zappone affair and the Greens with questions about the Brian Leddin Whatsapp controversy.

If the coalition continues to be its own worst enemy, small tasks will become more difficult. Bigger ones will prove impossible.

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