Almost a decade in power for Fine Gael inevitably brings strains and fatigue

Fiach Kelly: Micheál Martin versus Leo will be a genuine contest come election time

Micheál Martin, as the alternative taoiseach to Leo Varadkar, will face more scrutiny ahead of the next election than at any time in the past. Photograph:  Tom Honan

Micheál Martin, as the alternative taoiseach to Leo Varadkar, will face more scrutiny ahead of the next election than at any time in the past. Photograph: Tom Honan

 

Even though it was a statement of the obvious, it still gave pause for thought.

Regina Doherty, the Minister for Social Protection, was on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland this week to discuss a pilot programme to offer hot meals in primary schools.

“When we came into government in 2011,” Doherty began as she went on to outline Fine Gael’s record.

One Minister, speaking privately later that day, said Fine Gael would be better off prefacing its arguments with “since Leo Varadkar became Taoiseach”, which of course backdates the record to the more recent June 2017.

'If you gobsh**es feel you want a degree in muck studies or whatever, then off with you' - how one Fianna Fáiler claimed McHugh’s comments were received by some in rural Ireland

Doherty’s comments were a gentle reminder that Fine Gael has now been in office for over eight years, and will have occupied Government Buildings for more than nine by the likely time of the next general election in 2020.

Almost a decade in power, through which governments led by Fine Gael brought the country out of a bailout and into an economic recovery, inevitably brings its strains and fatigues, no matter who is Taoiseach.

Even though the Kenny-Noonan-Hogan axis gave way to Varadkar, Coveney and Donohoe, the wear and tear of office can still take its toll.

Public Services Card

Controversies over the Public Services Card, which Doherty had to deal with just a day after her school meals initiative, the cost of the national children’s hospital and the rollout of the national broadband plan are of the kind which stick to a second term government.

Charges of out of touch ministers, too, are easy pickings for an Opposition which senses ennui and lethargy.

Comments from Joe McHugh this week, in which the Minister for Education acknowledged the cost of city accommodation meant some families could not afford to send their children to university, fell into this category.

“If you gobsh**es feel you want to get a degree in muck studies or whatever, then off with you,” was how one Fianna Fáiler claimed McHugh’s comments were received by some in rural Ireland.

All through the period Fine Gael has been in office, the figure across the Dáil chamber has remained constant and is now facing into the key period of his long political career.

Micheál Martin assumed his own party leadership in January 2011, two months after the EU-IMF bailout and one month before the general election which saw voters take revenge by reducing Fianna Fáil to a rump in the Dáil.

The next six to nine months will see Martin either succeed or fail in his ambition to become Taoiseach, but the patient years of rebuilding have left him well positioned.

Public rebukes

Where once his own TDs openly defied him, Martin’s authority is no longer questioned in Fianna Fáil and is reinforced by private dressing downs and public rebukes, such as that given to frontbencher Timmy Dooley over Brexit last month, of those who stray off the party line.

A succession of correct political calls, from entering into and later extending the confidence and supply agreement to supporting the repeal of the Eighth Amendment, made against the wishes of many in his party and a solid electoral record have seen off internal critics.

Fianna Fáil is now more united than it has been at any stage of Martin’s leadership and, since the local elections, when it again outpolled Fine Gael, its TDs walk around Leinster House with a new confidence.

As the new political term begins, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are evenly matched. Fine Gael knows Martin is his party’s main asset, and senior figures say they will remind voters of his time spent in Bertie Ahern’s governments and seek to raise doubts about Fianna Fáil’s record on social issues.

Even so, some in Fine Gael can see a potential weakness in such an approach. In attempting to label the Cork South Central TD as yesterday’s man, one minister said Fine Gael may play into Fianna Fáil’s hands by unintentionally highlighting one of Martin’s criticisms of the Government: that the Taoiseach and his ministers are callow.

Fianna Fáil says it is ready for the ad hominem attacks, and shrug that they have seen it all before.

“They’ll go for Micheál, they always do, but that was 10 years ago and people know that,” said one senior party figure in the belief the electorate is prepared to leave the past where it is.

One TD said Martin’s decision to extend confidence and supply because of Brexit – a decision made for selfish political reasons as much as national interest, with Fianna Fáil keen to avoid an election while Varadkar was popular – has enhanced his standing with the public.

Martin revels in reminding commentators they consistently got it wrong with Fianna Fáil, and that nobody saw the party’s resurgence in the 2014 local elections or the general election of 2016.

He is correct in that his success snuck up on the political class, which never took his claims to the Taoiseach’s office seriously in 2016, but the same will not happen again.

Martin, as the alternative Taoiseach to Varadkar, will face more scrutiny ahead of the next election than at any time in the past. Theirs will be a genuine contest, and the first between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to be seen as one between equals for over a decade.

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