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Pat Leahy: Unrest in Fianna Fáil seems a given as taoiseach switch looms

Budget billions driving recovery in Government fortunes, while British political turmoil also shaping voter perceptions

The results of the latest Irish Times/Ipsos opinion poll provided some relief for the Coalition parties, showing increases in support for all three and boosts to the personal approval ratings of its leaders.

Satisfaction in the Government rose by nine points to 40 per cent — more than respectable for an administration beset by a once-in-a-generation inflation crisis. Findings published today show that the Coalition is the most popular choice for the next government, though at 30 per cent (the next popular option was a Sinn Féin-led administration without either FF or FG) it’s hardly a ringing endorsement. Still, for a Government in mid-term, buffeted by events, it ain’t bad.

Two factors, I think, underpinned the dramatic recovery in the Coalition’s fortunes since the summer. The first is the demonstration effect of the British omnishambles since the summer, with one appalling prime minister giving way to another manifestly unqualified one, before her government collapsed and she in turn handed over to someone else for a go. Being an obviously superior outfit to the British government hasn’t been hard, but it has helped the Coalition.

There is a strong possibility that Fianna Fáil will become more unruly as Micheál Martin’s internal opponents feel liberated to renew their moves against him

The second and more powerful engine behind the Coalition’s poll showing is more prosaic: the many billions that Ministers decided to chuck at the latest problem. Observers often look for a budget bounce after the measures are announced and then declare the whole thing has been a disaster when one doesn’t materialise. Wrong — the political effects of a budget tend to be seen when the measures actually take effect and last week 1.4 million people received a double welfare payment. No wonder they were feeling better disposed towards the Government.


A delighted mandarin tells me that civil servants this week received not just their “Building Momentum” pay increase, but also the backdated lump sum that is part of the agreement; several of his colleagues were building strong momentum in a number of well-known licensed premises on Baggot St, he reported.

Poll: Support for Ukraine strong but accommodation worries mount

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And with further once-off payments — including the double child benefit in November — due on a regular basis until into the new year, the Coalition could be in a position to win a second term by Christmas. Don’t rule out a snap election, chortles one Government type.

This may have been the drink talking. There are very difficult times ahead for the Coalition and bunging money at them isn’t going to solve the problems that will confront Ministers over the winter and into the new year. The budget billions will ease, not eliminate entirely, the financial pressures that many families will experience, especially as interest rate increases bite into household budgets.

Meanwhile, officials are scrambling to locate temporary accommodation for thousands of Ukrainians — an exercise, you might think, that might have been more energetically scrambled at six months ago. This will become a bigger and bigger problem over the winter, especially as the “regular” homeless numbers continue to climb.

It is, of course, well-established political wisdom that it is better to have someone inside the tent peeing out, rather than outside the tent peeing in

Amid all this, the Coalition has to manage the transition between its two leading figures — something which has not been agreed upon or even much discussed at the top level. They had better get on with it.

As Ciara Phelan reported in the Examiner last week, there isn’t even agreement on the exact date it should happen: despite the December 15th date laid down in the programme for government, it can’t be that date — or at least it shouldn’t be — because whoever is taoiseach is due in Brussels for a European summit that day.

There’s going to be a silly and potentially damaging row about this. Certainly, when it dawns on Fine Gaelers that Varadkar’s term of office will be considerably shorter than Martin’s — the Fianna Fáil leader will have been Taoiseach for 902 days, while 902 days after December 15th would bring Varadkar up to June 4th, 2025, four months after the election is due — their impatience on this point is likely to increase. But even when the date is agreed upon, the transition and period afterwards will be tricky.

For one thing, there is a strong possibility that Fianna Fáil will become more unruly as Martin’s internal opponents feel liberated to renew their moves against him. At present a sort of shadow battle is being played out over the readmission of Marc MacSharry to the parliamentary party.

MacSharry’s determination for readmission to the circle of (mis)trust is striking — he seems at least as keen to get back in as he was to get out last year. Given that there already exists within the parliamentary party a not inconsiderable anti-Martin rump, the party leader might wish to inquire if MacSharry still regards him as more or less a totalitarian dictator, as he did last year.

It may be that the Mac wants to attend parliamentary party meetings so he can declare his love and fealty to the glorious leader, but I have my doubts. It is, of course, well-established political wisdom that it is better to have someone inside the tent peeing out, rather than outside the tent peeing in. However, the aphorism assumes that the invitee into the tent is going to direct his fire out of the flap and not all over everyone inside.

The larger point is that unrest in Fianna Fáil seems a given. And while his speech to the Cáirde Fáil dinner last Saturday indicated an intention to take on his rivals (and also some finger-wagging about Government unity directed at Varadkar), Micheál Martin will have his work cut out. He will no longer be Taoiseach, and that’s a big thing. Fianna Fáil’s uncivil strife is set to return with a vengeance after the big switcheroo and you need only look across the water to see where that is likely to lead the party.