Op-ed pages of any newspaper have a certain circumspection. It’s not often they become the arena for political blood sport.
Last week, when three stalking horses galloped into the arena, the response was outraged. But then three Fine Gael junior ministers breaking Coalition ranks to write an opinion piece advocating for tax cuts, four months before the budget, is certainly not playing by the rules. The preternaturally phlegmatic Minister for Finance, Michael McGrath, contented himself with saying it was “an unusual move”. But other Fianna Fáil teeth were bared; there was baying for blood.
If the three junior ministers – Peter Burke, Jennifer Carroll MacNeill and Martin Heydon – felt exposed, Carroll MacNeill could be forgiven for feeling something more. A hostage to fortune perhaps? After all, not only is she a relative newcomer to Dáil Éireann, she is also Minister of State at the Department of Finance. Michael McGrath is her boss.
Why did they do it? By last weekend, all became clear. In an interview with Irish Times Political Editor Pat Leahy, eschewing any plausible deniability get-out, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he had prior knowledge of it. Of course he had.
The stalking horse intervention was not simply about budgetary jostling. It was, as became clear in that interview, a vision. There are leaders who are great managers, and then there are those with what George Bush Senior called “the vision thing”.
Éamon de Valera had a vision of a Jeffersonian Arcadia, of independent and prosperous farmers where no urban, factory life intruded. Garret FitzGerald had a vision of a secular state with liberalised contraception laws, divorce and a constitutional crusade to enable it. The often-overlooked Albert Reynolds had a vision of peace in Northern Ireland, for which risks had to be taken.
Leo Varadkar’s vision is almost Victorian. He believes that without a class for whom work is a purpose and source of admiration, a nation lacks the ability to produce and innovate. In this worldview, property, personal responsibility and achievement follow from industriousness. Varadkar’s mission seems to be centred on the notion that he can free the middle classes from the sense of being squeezed and restore the dignity and expansiveness that comes from home ownership.
In outlining this vision, Varadkar was drawing a big ideological battle line for the next election between Fine Gael and Sinn Féin. Red C poll figures from last weekend showing Sinn Féin on 34 per cent and Fine Gael on 20 per cent underline what a high-risk strategy this is, especially if he alienates his Coalition partners. Varadkar’s battle banner is home ownership; Sinn Féin’s battle banner is homelessness.
In this, Carroll MacNeill marches at point. In March, she tweeted, “Sinn Féin object to housing, Labour object to housing, People Before Profit object to housing. Let’s just build housing, lots of housing, when we need housing?” Unless Varadkar intends to greenlight a large building programme with the exchequer surplus, it’s hard to see how it will happen.
One thing is certain: Varadkar’s class clarity could not be more diametrically different from Sinn Féin’s more ambiguous position. While garnering support from the working class, that party now seeks to cultivate the middle classes with talk of foreign direct investment. These ambiguities are what exercise Carroll MacNeill, who questions what she called the “blatant hypocrisy from Sinn Féin trying to blow the corporation windfall tax despite having spent the last thirteen years trying to undermine foreign direct investment.” Among Oireachtas members – after Varadkar and Micheál Martin – she is becoming Sinn Féin’s most vocal critic.
That she is a politician who is prepared to live on the edge is evidenced by her reconvening last year the cross-party Oireachtas Friends of Israel group.
The most common misconception about her is that she’s a newbie. But her short years in Leinster House belie her political acumen. She developed a tough skin during years as a special adviser in the Department of Justice, when it was convulsed by the false allegations against former garda sergeant and whistleblower Maurice McCabe. Having watched two ministers – Frances Fitzgerald and Alan Shatter – resign under the complexities of that scandal, she left for calmer waters, penning a political thesis on judicial appointments in Ireland. Her subsequent years as special adviser to Eoghan Murphy, as he flailed under the housing portfolio, must have been instructive. Undoubtedly all of this contributed to the heavy hitter she is rapidly becoming. She has found her voice. And it’s a strong one, like Mary Lou MacDonald’s.
Pearse Doherty has been much in her sights in her frequent press releases excoriating Sinn Féin. So too have been the party’s counterproductive attempts to discommode Paschal Donohoe’s failure to declare election expenses relating to postering work paid for by a friend.
She excoriated Mary Lou MacDonald’s acceptance of a donation of €1,000 from Jonathan Dowdall, though mystifyingly her leader was more understanding of Sinn Féin’s dilemma in relation to the convicted criminal, saying he knew it can be difficult to vet candidates. Clearly she is her own woman. But is she also a hostage to fortune? Or – as she has made clear she would like – a future Minister for Finance?