Week is a long time in politics for Micheál Martin

Cowen affair may mean as many as one-third of party TDs no longer support the Taoiseach

Taoiseach Micheál Martin: A significant minority now favour an alternative path, and with it, an alternative leader. Photograph:  Brian Lawless/PA

Taoiseach Micheál Martin: A significant minority now favour an alternative path, and with it, an alternative leader. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA

 

Political life goes through cycles, with times of heightened drama followed by periods that are taciturn and mundane.

Over four months, the negotiations that led to the formation of government had as many twists and as much intrigue needed to fill two seasons of a Netflix series. Following its creation, the expectation was the new Coalition would bed in, with things winding down as the August torpor approached.

That has not happened. Instead, the coalition has got off to an uneven and rocky start. Fianna Fáil lost Barry Cowen within three weeks of him getting his seal of office. The Greens have been given an early reminder of the reality of big compromises in government.

The running sores left by its bruising debate over coalition have not fully healed. Moreover, it is in the throes of a leadership contest between Eamon Ryan and Catherine Martin which has the potential of having a destabilising impact on the party.

By contrast, Fine Gael has been relaxed and unruffled – managing to sail through it all calmly.

The Cowen affair has been a huge setback for Fianna Fáil, as it readjusts to life in government after a decade in the cold. The party has worked hard to reinvent itself as a modern party, strong on probity and on standards. Its problem is that its high-profile TDs have a habit of getting mired in controversy or playing hard and fast with the rules.

Cowen’s drink-driving ban controversy recalled the recent Votegate controversy involving Niall Collins and Timmy Dooley and – travelling further back in time – the forced resignations of prominent office holders like Willie O’Dea, John O’Donoghue and – most egregiously – Ray Burke.

There is irony here, too. Micheál Martin’s earlier career was characterised by caution, especially when he was minister for health. He acquired the reputation – which he bridled against – of being indecisive and a waverer.

As a point of fact, in his latter career, his actions would suggest the complete opposite. He dispatched those who broke the rules under his leadership with a certain streak of ruthlessness.

On the morning after Barry Cowen was sacked by Martin, a former Fine Gael minister mused that Martin had moved too hastily. It is true that the pressure had not yet reached the fever pitch that made it unavoidable. Knowing Cowen’s stubborn nature, it is a likely that the decision was made to end it there and then, rather than wait for the same result some days later, with a whole pile more of grief added.

Absence of loyalty

Was the decision and its timing right? Senior Ministers felt that it was and that Martin had no other choice. But it is a minority in the parliamentary party who saw it as a sign of an absence of loyalty on Martin’s past – and party loyalty has always been big in Fianna Fáil.

Cowen himself now looks he could join Martin’s growing number of adversaries. According to another of their number, as many as a third of the TDs would not support the Taoiseach. A boil has appeared that will not be easily lanced.

Former minister for agriculture Barry Cowen: The Cowen affair has been a huge setback for Fianna Fáil, as it readjusts to life in government after a decade in the cold. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA
Former minister for agriculture Barry Cowen: The Cowen affair has been a huge setback for Fianna Fáil, as it readjusts to life in government after a decade in the cold. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA

A significant minority now favour an alternative path, and with it, an alternative leader. Not quite yet, but certainly within the lifetime of the Government – perhaps at the moment when Martin steps down as taoiseach at the end of 2022.

And before a blow was struck, the party knows it has to perform exceptionally in government if it is going to survive. It has taken on four of the most difficult portfolios – health, housing, public expenditure and education. There are a number of certainties that go with those departments – unpopularity, controversy, brickbats. Ministers will need to show tangible results – not impossible, but really difficult.

It was a brave move for Martin to elevate Norma Foley, a first time TD, into education too. She has had an uncertain first few weeks and has got into hot water over the manner in which the delay in publishing Leaving Cert results was announced. “The exploding clown car that is the Department of Education trundles on,” was Aodhán Ó Ríordáin’s scathing verdict. Another new Minister of State Thomas Byrne strongly denied a claim by a party activist on social media he had tipped off the media about Cowen’s drink-driving ban. Altogether it’s not a good look.

Strangely, since becoming taoiseach, Martin has projected a stronger and more confident figure than following the shambles of its election campaign. But it needs more than him to ward off the real and immediate threat posed by Sinn Féin.

Opposition muscle

And the main Opposition party is already flexing its muscles. In the socially distanced Dáil there is a roll-call and it’s then it is brought home how big a presence it has in the Chamber. It has wasted no time in zoning in on Fianna Fáil and on the Greens. There were two votes on Thursday that the Greens would have supported without thinking in Opposition – relating to proposals to extend maternity benefit payments during Covid-19 and to give lower-paid workers more rights. The Government voted them down and you could see how hard that was for some of the Greens.

“The Green TDs who promised change,” harrumphed Ruairí Ó Murchú of Sinn Féin in a tweet, “all 12 voted against improvements in the lives of workers’ rights and new mothers”.

Sinn Féin and other Opposition parties will table private members Bills on issues such as direct provision, Israel, LNG, housing, social welfare, equality issues and animal rights during the course of this Dáil term that will really test the cohesion of all Green members to the programme to which they have signed up to.

And then there is the Greens’ leadership contest. Initially, it was thought that vote would mirror that of the programme for government. But in the past week, both sides agree it will be close.

Catherine Martin has gained kudos for the leading role she played in negotiations, and is favoured more by those who emphasise social justice. Ryan has majored wholly on his experience – and with him, it’s almost all environment. She has countered that by saying experience is not a prerequisite and can stymie risk-taking. Few say Martin will win it, but if Ryan’s margin is less than 60 per cent to 40 per cent, it will exacerbate internal tensions, which are real and present, despite Greens insisting it all being Karma.

Like Fianna Fáil, the Greens need to show early tangible wins. The Climate Action Bill needs to be published within the promised 100 days. The Climate Advisory Council needs to be up and running with a five-year carbon budget. The Just Transition Plan needs to be delivered early, as will a strong policy statement setting out the State’s withdrawal of support for a liquefied natural gas plan on the Shannon Estuary in north Kerry. And the list goes on.