"What the f**k is Daly at?" asked a Fine Gael TD as he observed his colleague, junior minister Jim Daly, in full flow on Wednesday evening. During the otherwise uneventful debate on the motion of no confidence in Minister for Health Simon Harris, Daly directed his ire not at Sinn Féin, who had tabled the motion, but towards Fianna Fáil.
“We spend the cost of one children’s hospital ever four months servicing interest on debt from the mismanagement of the economy when members opposite were in charge of the purse strings.”
Sinn Féin TDs cheered Daly on, as Fianna Fáil seethed.
"That was the best Fine Gael speech I have heard," Sinn Féin Wicklow TD John Brady called across the chamber, while his party colleague Jonathan O'Brien taunted: "If Fine Gael wants to propose a motion of no confidence in Fianna Fáil, we will support it."
Micheál Martin’s TDs unenthusiastically abstained in the vote on Harris’s position, in line with the confidence and supply agreement that underpins the Fine Gael led minority government.
Party members and TDs, chafing at being in the unprecedented arrangement longer than they had ever envisaged, did not need Daly rubbing their noses in an issue that – in normal political times, free from the shadow of Brexit – TDs say would have collapsed the Government.
According to Fianna Fáil figures, the controversy over the national children's hospital has seriously damaged trust between it and Fine Gael. One said the breach is of the "magnitude" of the November 2017 crisis that pushed the country to the brink of an election and led to the resignation of then tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald.
Party sources say the hospital overspend was not raised either in budget talks last autumn or in discussions that led to the extension of the confidence and supply agreement before Christmas.
“We were over and back like lemmings,” says one source. “We were given the heads up on public sector pay, we were given a lot on the national broadband scheme. It is annoying that Paschal didn’t say: ‘We also have a problem with the children’s hospital’. We should have been told.”
Another figure says: “They’re not fools, they knew the political ramifications.”
After Daly had finished , senior Fine Gael TDs who took part in the confidence and supply talks late last year discreetly spoke to their Fianna Fáil counterparts from those mammoth sessions, to smooth things over.
The fraught sense across Leinster House is contributing to a feeling that the endgame of confidence and supply is near.
Some Fianna Fáil TDs have warned that, in the event of a Brexit resolution in the coming weeks, another issue like the children’s hospital will cause an election.
One more budget
Senior figures, however, insist that Martin’s commitment to facilitate the passage of one more budget later this year still stands, while also maintaining that the party is ready for an election.
Few party members, TDs and senators gathering for the Fianna Fáil ard fheis in Citywest today want to wait much longer for one. It is clear they are ready to fight.
For long periods of Martin’s leadership since 2011, he had to manage sections of his party – from the frontbench down to the grassroots – who wanted to pull in different directions.
There are still noises off occasionally, from outspoken TDs John McGuinness, Marc MacSharry and others. Yet as elections come into view – local and European in May and the subsequent general election, whenever it falls – many TDs now believe they smell weakness in Fine Gael and Sinn Féin. Fianna Fáil eyes are narrowing in anticipation of a contest.
"The election is coming," says Limerick TD and foreign affairs spokesman Niall Collins. "Let's take it as it comes and take the best opportunity as it presents itself."
This period, leading up to the local elections, sees TDs in close contact with the party rank and file at selection conventions for aspiring councillors, and the anger over the national children’s hospital is percolating through to the parliamentary party.
Barry Andrews spent weeks canvassing members to win the party's European Parliament nomination for Dublin. At the selection convention last weekend, he channelled what he had heard when he forcefully questioned if the deal could be seen through to another budget, if Brexit is settled.
"They want to be in government," says a frontbench TD of the party members. "They are all agreed that we can't do something because of Brexit. That doesn't mean they are not articulating a frustration. You see Barry, Mr Establishment Fianna Fáil, articulating that. He has been getting it in the neck for the last two weeks in one-to-ones."
Barry Cowen, the public expenditure spokesman, cautions that the party must stick to its word, and facilitate a fourth budget. Party figures also say the views of the membership are not necessarily shared by the wider public.
“We have to stick with it in the national interest,” says Cowen, adding that the party is making “steady progress without being spectacular”. TDs largely accept the consistent message from opinion polls: that Fianna Fáil, hovering around the mid to high 20s, is a few points behind Fine Gael, which scores regularly in the low 30s.
“There is also a latent support for us that will come back,” says one TD of a section of the electorate whose message to Fianna Fáil now is: “‘Ah ye are too close to the government.’
“If we get to call an election, there is a support out there who might say: ‘Fair play, ye are standing up to them at last’.”
These people, it is argued, could be added to voters who already give Fianna Fáil credit for sticking to confidence and supply. All profess faith in Martin’s campaigning skills, too.
Fianna Fáil’s prime targets in Dublin are at least five if not six extra seats in the general election, spread across Dún Laoghaire, Dublin South West, Dublin Fingal, Dublin Central and Dublin South Central.
Martin’s hope is a total of approximately 60 seats after the next general election. His determination that senior TDs across the country should bring in running mates was displayed this week when he publicly said any move by Billy Kelleher to the European Parliament would damage Fianna Fáil’s chances of second seat in Cork North Central. His comments were seen as a brutal shafting of one of the party’s most recognisable faces.
“I would get lulled into a false comfort zone with him, and then every so often he will walk over you to get to his goal,” says one TD of his leader.
Those involved in the nuts and bolts of the party organisation, who keep in touch with canvass teams across the country, also claim that Sinn Féin is not working as hard as previously in areas such as Tallaght, and that Fine Gael TDs are not as diligent in working their constituencies as could be expected, with one or two exceptions.
"That is demonstrated by the fact they are not out in every constituency apart from the odd individuals beavering away. TDs Noel Rock [and] your man out in Dublin Rathdown," says one Fianna Fáiler, referencing Fine Gael's deputy for Dublin North West and Senator Neale Richmond, who is pushing for a seat in Rathdown.
“I don’t think they are giving enough consideration to what they are doing, in terms of structural organisation and all of that. You have got to get the organisation right, the type of candidate right, the structure right. If you don’t do that you are making mistakes, you are not getting a seat you might have hoped to get.”
A close eye is also being kept on constituencies such as Dublin Bay South and Wicklow, where sitting Fianna Fail TDs may need to up their game to keep their seats.
The immediate target is to win three European Parliament seats and to maintain Fianna Fáil’s position as the largest party at local government level by winning 300 or more council seats.
After that, a number of sources say Fianna Fáil should reassess its position in September, with an autumn election seen as a strong possibility if there is some resolution to Brexit.
Yet Martin recommitted himself in recent days to passing one more budget and again said he believes the election should be held in early 2020.
Once more, his call will be the one that holds sway, even if he is faced with mounting frustration and hunger within his ranks.
“That’s when the leadership versus the party comes into it,” says a well-placed figure.
Thus far, Martin has been politically correct on all the big decisions, from advocating the repeal of the Eighth Amendment, to extending confidence and supply until Brexit is settled.
Martin’s main task over the next 12 months may be keeping his party on a leash. His TDs – often exasperated with their leader’s school principal manner – will trust him again.
“When you strip it all back – and I love to take the piss out of him, I love to mock him – but he has made the right call on all the big issues and he has excelled in all the elections,” said one frontbencher. “He has been a huge asset.”