Varadkar offers perfect foil for Fianna Fáil brand campaign

Party takes aim at Taoiseach in effort to cast itself as one returning to left of centre roots

Irish Times political reporter Sarah Bardon talks to Fianna Fáil members about preparing for a general election at the party's ardfheis in Dublin.

 

If there was ever a doubt that Fianna Fáil wanted Leo Varadkar to win the Fine Gael leadership contest, this ardfheis has provided the conclusive answer.

Speaker after speaker attacked Varadkar’s Fine Gael as Tories caught on the wrong side of the Irish Sea, whose basest right-wing instincts are being tempered only by Fianna Fáil influence via the confidence-and-supply deal. The crude caricature brought about by Varadkar’s ascension to the Taoiseach’s office has also given Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin further licence to cast his party as one that has returned to its left of centre roots.

On Saturday afternoon, Prof Tim Bale of Queen Mary University of London, who has advised Fianna Fáil since its electoral meltdown in 2011, told delegates that one method of achieving success was to ensure that the governing party is not seen as standing for the ordinary man, or for fairness.

Fianna Fáil obviously believes Varadkar offers them the perfect chance to follow Bale’s advice. In a morning session, finance spokesman Michael McGrath said that “unlike other parties”, Fianna Fáil does not target “certain sections” of Irish society, drawing a comparison to Varadkar’s promise to represent those who get up early in the morning. “That cuts to the core of our ideology as a party,” McGrath said.

Dara Calleary, who, alongside McGrath, negotiated last week’s budget with Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe, accused Fine Gael of “Tory-style politics”.

“I make no apology for standing in the corner of those on fixed income or on welfare payments,” said Calleary. “That is the Fianna Fáil way.”

Stridency

Often at party gatherings such as these, frontbench spokespeople are tasked with attacking the political enemy with a stridency and force that perhaps could be below the leader of the day. Not so at the RDS on Saturday night.

Martin went further than most in attacking Varadkar. He effectively accused the Fine Gael leader of being an “out-of-touch” elitist who wanted to divide Irish society and was in the process of dragging his party further to the right.

Fianna Fáil, claimed Martin, “will never accept the attempt to divide our society into winners and losers – into the deserving and the dependent”.

“Our country is better than that,” he said.

“I’m sorry, but we will never accept labelling the sick, pensioners, children with special needs, people with disabilities or people looking for a home as being less entitled to society’s support.

“The decision by Fine Gael to head off on this new divisive road is more about positioning for an election than trying to govern.”

Quite clearly, Martin is satisfied that Varadkar’s positioning gives Fianna Fáil the space to occupy the soft centre, and to pursue voters on the centre left. The Taoiseach, in line with Fianna Fáil’s charge that he is all style and no substance, was also accused of being obsessed with spin. The force of the attack on Varadkar masked the fact that Martin had no major new policy to announce.

Fianna Fáil, just days after agreeing a budget with Fine Gael, is probably in no position to claim massive policy divergence from the Government. Yet the party is satisfied that it knows how to pursue, in Varadkar, the quarry it always wanted. The ardfheis and Martin’s speech, in particular, provided further evidence, if it was really needed, that Irish political debate is taking a sharper turn.

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